In icy Minnesota, Pond Hockey Championships capture sport's essence

MINNEAPOLIS, Feb 2 (Reuters) - As NFL players, fans and sponsors began heading to Minneapolis last weekend for the upcoming Super Bowl, 2,500 hardy skaters took to the frozen surface of Lake Nokomis in a celebration of pond hockey, a childhood joy for millions of amateur players.

Men and women of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels from across the United States and the world played at the 13th annual U.S. Pond Hockey Championships.

Four-player teams competing in seven divisions played 30-minute hockey games atop the frozen lake under frigid temperatures. The lake is a few miles away from the fixed-roof U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where the temperature will be kept at 70 degrees F (21.1 C) for the Super Bowl even though forecasts call for 3 degrees (-16.1 C) outdoors.

Some, like former Olympian Natalie Darwitz, brought an impressive resume to the ice but still viewed the competition as a chance to revisit their childhoods.

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Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minnesota
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Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minnesota
A hockey player takes to the ice at sunrise for the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Players skates toward the the real reward, a case of beer, after a game at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A stick taped with a rainbow of colors sits planted upright in the snow at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A father and daughter make their way to youth night during the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 25, 2018. Picture taken January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
With their team sporting stars and stripes pants, two players cross paths at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 27, 2018. Picture taken January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A pond hockey goal, made of wood with two openings that the puck must find to count as a goal, shows the wear of many near misses at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 27, 2018. Picture taken January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Members of the team "He Suits, He Scores" confer during a halftime break in their game at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A player from the winning men's team Wright Homes carries the the Golden Shovel trophy onto the ice after clinching the title at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 28, 2018. Picture taken January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Brothers Chris and Dennis Ferrara of Babylon, NY, take advantage of an unseasonably warm day to play shirtless during the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Despite puddles from melting ice, players compete in the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Members of women's team Consistently Cuatro watch their teammate play during the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 27, 2018. Picture taken January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A player slogs through deep water on an unseasonably warm day during the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Players stay warm between games during the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 28, 2018. Picture taken January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
In his blood spattered jersey after being hit by a stick, Geno Parrish returns triumphantly after receiving stitches to celebrate with his team Wright Homes who won the men's final of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 28, 2018. Picture taken January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A player wears a well worn skate at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A player wears a jersey with the name and number of U.S. President Donald Trump during the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. The entire team took names of actors in the movie "Home Alone 2" in which Trump had a cameo appearance. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A team mascot is placed rinkside during the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 28, 2018. Picture taken January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A player from losing team Orange Theory Fitness crashes into the boards during the men's open final of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 28, 2018. Picture taken January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A boy makes his way to the ice during youth night at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 25, 2018. Picture taken January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Players convene during a break at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A player smiles through his mask at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Referee Tony Gogolakis, affectionately and appropriately known "Roadkill" for his complete animal fur wardrobe, speaks with a team during a game at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 28, 2018. Picture taken January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Action takes place on all rinks at the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 27, 2018. Picture taken January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
A flag is raised at sunrise for the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Matt Lamore of Detroit holds up his team's Stanley Cup made from beer cans during the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. January 26, 2018. Picture taken January 26, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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"This is a lot of fun...the way you grew up playing on the ponds when you were little, just grabbing a puck and stick and shooting around," said Darwitz, who won two silver and a bronze medal in the Olympics playing for the U.S. Women's team. "It's just hockey in its purest form."

Slap shots, checking and goalies were not allowed. Goals were scored by shooting the puck into one of the two 12-inch holes in wooden goals that replaced hockey nets at each end of the rink.

"We had low expectations and we met them," said Adam Bennett, a player from New Zealand. "The spirit of the event has been really good and people came with the right attitude. We are just here for the giggles."

When not on the ice, players gathered in a huge warming tent, where they changed into their gear and stayed out of the elements. The soupy air inside carried the distinct scent of well-used hockey gear, but the mood was jovial as players enjoyed the company of like-minded hockey enthusiasts.

"First and foremost, it's really fun to be in a tent with a lot of your peers, hockey players, your friends, former teammates...it's the best part of the weekend," said Steve Aronson, who was the first player ever signed by the National Hockey League's Minnesota Wild in 2000.

Another tent, where beer flowed, was strategically placed where players entered and left the ice. For those who could not wait, cases of beer often accompanied a team to their rink for an immediate reward at the final whistle.

After three full days of games, a winner was named. The NHL's coveted Stanley Cup was nowhere in sight, unless you counted a replica made of beer cans. Instead of trophies or prize money, the winning team had its name inscribed on a less well-known award: The Golden Shovel.

"I just like the atmosphere and being outside," said Jennifer Wilking, from Minnesota, who played on a men's team. "It's nice to get out here once a year and do something a little different."

(Writing by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Joseph Ax and David Gregorio)

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