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He shoots! He scores! Pond hockey offers a trip to yesteryear

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - Dwight Shellman stopped lacing his skates and glanced up to see a familiar face.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - Dwight Shellman stopped lacing his skates and glanced up to see a familiar face.

"Good to see you guys back again. I'll see you in the corner. Keep your head up," Shellman said Friday morning with a friendly snarl as he leaned back down and finished getting dressed. "We played them last year. They kicked our butts."

Moments later, Shellman and his five teammates skated outside to one of the six makeshift rinks being used for the fourth annual Lake Placid Pond Hockey Tournament. And there were no complaints about a wind-driven rain and unseasonably warm weather as they prepared for some brisk 4-on-4 hockey.

"This is how we grew up. It doesn't matter that it's raining," said the 48-year-old Shellman, who was born and raised in Minneapolis. "After 30 years, how lucky are we to come back here to skate outside like I did as a kid four times a week? Are you kidding?"

It's a feeling shared by all 40 teams that trekked here from places like Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Raleigh, N.C., Long Island, N.Y., New Jersey, Buffalo, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

"It's our last chance to make the pros," joked 36-year-old Jim Goodman, who was born in Winnipeg and lives in Ottawa.

At the inaugural tournament three years ago, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" gold-medal performance at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, it was 40 below zero without the wind chill and games were played on Mirror Lake.

On Friday, with the thermometer hovering around 40 and the lake ice too thin to skate on safely, tournament organizer Can-Am Hockey was forced to move the action to the speedskating oval where in 1932 hometown hero Jack Shea became the first speedskating double-gold medallist in Winter Olympic history. It's the same rink where Eric Heiden took home five golds 48 years later.

The opening ceremony was brief and predictable.

"I'm sorry about the weather," Lake Placid Mayor Jamie Rogers said. "But where you're playing there's an outlet of Mirror Lake underneath you, so you're still playing on the pond. Game On!"

Although there are many arguments as to the exact origins of hockey, most experts agree the game was born outside on a frozen body of water somewhere in Canada. The earliest games featured players wearing blades strapped to their shoes and using tree branches for sticks, and it was not unusual to have up to 30 players on a side.

In a nod to the role pond hockey has played in the sport, the NHL staged the Winter Classic on New Year's Day at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The game between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins was the second held outside in the league's history. An NHL-record crowd of 71,217 saw the Penguins' 2-1 shootout win.

Like the game played by the pros, pond hockey requires speed, agility, strength, finesse and teamwork. Unlike in the pros, the games are played in daylight and on a much smaller ice surface (135 feet by 65 feet compared to the NHL's 200-by-85), and require a willingness to withstand the elements.

There are also no faceoff circles, no lines (centre ice here was marked by an orange traffic cone), no offsides, no icing, no slap shots and no Zamboni. A piece of plastic with a handle pushed around by one of the rink workers cleared the ice between the 40-minute games.

And except when goals are scored, the puck goes out of bounds, or a player is called for an infraction, there are also few stoppages in play.

No aggressive physical contact or abusive language is permitted and there are no goalies to prevent shots from entering the wooden goals - which are six feet wide but just 10 inches high.

There is, however, a lot of fun to be had. Just take a look at the team names: Shellman's team is called the Raleigh Jokers, and their first-round opponent was a Long Island team dubbed Who Cares? It featured a player dressed like a lobster.

"Why not?" said the red lobster man, Joe Kuehn. "We came up to have a good time, drink some beers, and maybe play some hockey."

"Nice tail," Shellman quipped as Joe Kuehn skated to meet the Jokers' David Kuehn - no relation.

Shellman, a father of five who operates an ad agency in Raleigh, sized up the opposition as the game got under way.

"They're pretty good," the former minor-league pitcher said as he sat on a six-foot aluminum bench during a line change. "But one of them skates like a girl."

OK, one of them actually WAS a girl. Ali Annunziato, a 25-year-old physical education teacher from Long Island, was one of a handful of women competing.

"The rain kind of puts a damper on things, but it's fun," said Annunziato, who has played since she was 4 and used to skate on the family pool.

Participants, who play in different age divisions, come from every walk of life - firefighters, engineers, farmers, ironworkers, you name it. Even automobile magnates like Bill Ford Jr., who played here two years ago.

Some didn't have the day off.

"I'm really not supposed to be here," said bespectacled, 39-year-old Gary Guay of nearby Chazy. "I'm supposed to be getting my eyes checked. They're not working too well."

Neither were his teammates, who included 44-year-old brother Jim Guay. The final score was typical: Northwood 38, Chazy Chickenhawks 21.

Some took the day off. Glen Dupuis, a packaging engineer from New Jersey who used vacation time to make the trip, struggled to catch his breath as he unlaced his skates after his Beavers tied Last Call of Long Island 21-all.

"They were counting down the last five seconds and nobody could breathe," said the 38-year-old Dupuis, who started playing hockey when he was 3 in Livonia, Mich., and idolized former Detroit Red Wings great Steve Yzerman. "This is what I did as a kid. There are a million lakes in Michigan. I take my hockey seriously, but we do it for the love of the game. There's nothing like scoring a goal into a wooden net."

The Jokers, who were clad in green jerseys with Aardvark Exterminators emblazoned on the front (the company is owned by Shellman's teammate and 45-year-old brother, Paul) gained a big early lead and held on to win 26-17.

Shellman, who plays three nights a week back home, pondered the weekend as the Jokers prepared for a second-round game against Capital Punishment of Hartford, Conn. There would be two more games on Saturday and medal games Sunday morning, and he was visualizing another gold medal.

"Winning the first one three years ago was pretty cool," he said. "I'd like to do it again."

 
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