UNITED STATES NEWS

Pond hockey in New Hampshire brightens winter for hundreds. But climate change threatens the sport

Feb 13, 2024, 10:05 PM

Hockey players go for the puck during the final of the women's open division at the Pond Hockey Cla...

Hockey players go for the puck during the final of the women's open division at the Pond Hockey Classic in Meredith, N.H., on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024. Like many winter traditions on lakes across the U.S., pond hockey is under threat from climate change. (AP Photo/Nick Perry)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Nick Perry)

MEREDITH, N.H. (AP) — Every winter, Pete Kibble and the guys he plays social hockey with in Massachusetts make the trek up to New Hampshire to play in an outdoor tournament many believe embodies the sport in its purest form.

They are among the 2,200 players who descend on Meredith each February to compete for three days on a frozen lake surrounded by rolling, snow-covered hills. It’s an event many wouldn’t miss as much for the social experience as anything. Kibble’s team name — Nog — even comes from their post-game tradition of sharing eggnog with opponents.

But like many winter traditions on lakes across the U.S., the Pond Hockey Classic is under threat from climate change. This year, the tournament was moved from Lake Winnipesaukee, where the ice wasn’t thick enough, to the smaller Lake Waukewan. As temperatures soared, a sister tournament on Lake Champlain in Vermont was canceled.

Elsewhere, at New York’s Saranac Lake, a palace constructed from thousands of blocks of ice was 88-year-old man died when the all-terrain vehicle he was on plunged through the ice after a fishing trip, the latest in a series of such accidents.

In the Midwest, there has been a decrease in both the extent and duration of ice cover on the Great Lakes, while some smaller lakes have lost about 20 total days of annual ice cover over the past century, said Ted Ozersky, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

He said the rapid changes also could affect wildlife and ecosystems. “We really don’t know what this loss of winter means for our lakes,” Ozersky said.

Last year was the warmest ever recorded on Earth, and a natural El Nino weather pattern has made winter even milder in some places.

In Meredith, players traveled from around the country for the tournament that began Feb. 2. The rules were four per side with no goalies, and players ranged in ability from beginners to former professionals.

In all, 275 teams competed across 26 rinks surrounded by small, portable barriers and tended to by skaters carrying snow shovels. There were no referees, and players had to aim the puck at one of two tiny goals. Some hardy spectators watched all day, including one family that wore crampons for traction.

One team arrived decked out in furry coats, another set up a barbecue and most started socializing the moment their games were over.

“It’s the most fun weekend of the year,” said Kelly Kittredge, a former college player whose “Boston Beauties” team ended up finishing second in the women’s open division. “This year, some warm days, but making the best of it.”

As climbing temperatures turned ice to slush on the first day of competition, some players swapped their skates for boots. Cooler temperatures on the following days made for faster action on the ice.

Pond Hockey Classic founder Scott Crowder said there’s nothing better than playing outdoors in a beautiful setting.

“For the older generation, it’s nostalgic. It’s how they grew up playing. They’d go down to the local park and pond, and strap on their skates and play all afternoon,” Crowder said. “I think anybody that’s ever laced up a pair of skates, having the opportunity to skate outside just pulls at the heartstrings.”

Crowder said that, on average, the lake ice was about eight or nine inches thick this year, the minimum they needed to safely host the tournament. He said he can’t predict the future of the event, adding there is plenty of appetite from spectators and players, local businesses, and the township of Meredith.

“But there is one variable we can’t control,” Crowder said, referring to the weather. “And it’s a big one.”

Elizabeth Burakowski, a research assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, said data shows New England is a U.S. hotspot when it comes to winter warming.

“I grew up in New Hampshire, and so driving up to the lakes in northern New Hampshire, Lake Winnipesaukee, you typically expect by January that things are fully iced over,” she said. “That there’s snowmobilers out there, there’s ice fishing going on. And in recent years, that’s just not what I’ve experienced.”

Kibble, for one, has made the trip from Milton every year since the tournament began 15 years ago and has no plans to stop now. His team competes in the over-50s age group these days, and he jokes that the moniker on his shirt, “Eggs,” refers as much to his body shape as his team’s eggnog tradition. He says it’s all about the camaraderie.

“Just being outdoors, skating, playing hockey like we used to when we were kids,” he said.

___

Associated Press writer Melina Walling in Chicago contributed to this report.

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Pond hockey in New Hampshire brightens winter for hundreds. But climate change threatens the sport