Hockey took center stage Saturday – and the stage itself might have been the most valuable player of the seventh Labatt Blue Buffalo Pond Hockey Tournament.
The refrigerated rinks at Buffalo RiverWorks, an industrial setting along the Buffalo River, proved immune to heavy rain over the previous two days, making it possible for 120 teams, featuring 800 players, to compete Friday and Saturday.
“Refrigeration saved the day,” said player Vincent Smith, recalling recent years when warm temperatures made it difficult – and in 2012, downright impossible – to play.
Josh Wojtaszczyk, with his son Carter, looked out over the rinks, the St. Mary’s Cement grain elevator and Michigan Street Bridge looming nearby, pleased by what he saw.
“This is a cool idea. It’s a lot different than what it was in the past,” he said.
The site wasn’t without its shortcomings. There were few areas for spectators, none with seating, and the parking lot was filled with mud and craters of water to avoid. But people seemed willing to overlook the deficiencies, expecting that improvements will be made if the tournament continues at the first-time site.
Smith noted that the ice was rough to skate on, but said purists would point out that ponds aren’t surfaced between games and the rinks shouldn’t be, either.
His teammate, Bob Hebeler, also liked the tournament’s new setting.
“I think it’s something cool. A few years here and it’ll be even better,” he said.
Underneath the two long rinks, each carved into three playing surfaces, were 30 miles of one-inch thick tubing. Circulating inside was 5,000-gallons of refrigerant made from a brine solution that kept the ice temperature between 18 and 22 degrees.
Hockey players skated on 7 inches of ice, painted white with special ice paint.
Among them were hard-core hockey players DJ Tags and Tom Zimmer, who recently played in a pond hockey tournament in Minnesota. Tags skated in pond hockey tournaments in Vermont the previous two years.
Former Buffalo Sabres Darryl Shannon, Ric Seiling and Grant Ledyard offered coaching advice as Buffalo Police skated past Buffalo Fire by a score of 12-9. Danielle Schmidt rooted on her husband, Nick, a firefighter, with sons Sawyer, 4, sporting a Patrick Kane jersey, and Drury, 6, wearing Sidney Crosby’s name.
John Zola of Batavia, whose son was in the tournament, watched alongside fiancee Susan Francis, who was wrapped in a red furry blanket. “The windchill is a little crazy, but I’m loving it,” Francis said.
The most popular place to be at times was the indoor shed overlooking the rinks and a stage where bands performed. The beer was flowing, while the menu at Pearl Street Grill and Brewery’s food stand included homemade pot roast, chili and chicken noodle soup.