By Kevin Lamarque
MINNEAPOLIS (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.
"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)