Lake Nokomis readies for pond hockey spectacular

Bill Wilkins (left) and Greg Higgs of Minneapolis pound in stakes marking the boundaries of the rinks for this weekend's pond hockey tournament on Lake Nokomis

Bill Wilkins (left) and Greg Higgs of Minneapolis pound in stakes marking the boundaries of the rinks for this weekend's pond hockey tournament on Lake Nokomis

As a freshman hockey player at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Justin Kaufenberg pumped a goal in one of his first games as a collegiate skater. "Unfortunately, only five more followed in the next four years," Kaufenberg says, able to laugh about his diminutive stats a decade later.

The levity is worthy of note, considering that the boyish 29-year-old is about to take the biggest shot of his young life.

In late summer, Kaufenberg and his TST Media co-founder, Carson Kipfer, acquired the U.S. Pond Hockey Championship from popular tournament founder Fred Haberman. In its five-year history, the tourney has fast become one of the most unusual winter events in the country, garnering attention from a slew of national media outlets and hosting skaters from nearly every state in the union, all vying for the Golden Shovel.

Kaufenberg describes himself and Haberman as "kindred spirits," adding that his objective is to further the core philosophy that's been in place since the tourney's inception.

"I've always really admired Fred, and admired why he started it," says Kaufenberg. "With the idea that hockey should be played outside, the purity of it. Get away from all the B.S.—there's a lot of it today, where it's so expensive, so competitive. Just get back outside and have fun with it."

TST is a Minneapolis software outfit, and the owners will be borrowing from their own expertise to create an increased tech presence for the championships.

"For scoring in the past, everything's been kept from a manual perspective—white boards, basically," Kaufenberg explains. "What we do in general as an amateur sports software company is specialize in statistics, standings, real-time data. This year, we'll be displaying about half a dozen flat-panel LCD screens all around the event, running real-time score updates. All the referees will be relaying in up-to-the-second goal statistics. So you'll be seeing those if you're down here, and you'll be able to watch the scores from home also."

But the transition from programming to puck-dropping is a different monster, one that requires a massive amount of preparation for an event that has often hosted upward of 20,000 fans on Lake Nokomis.

"When we acquired the tournament, we got an equipment list," Kaufenberg recalls. "Never having put the event on before, looking down the list we kind of had our own 'holy shit' moment. You've got 28 rinks' worth of boards, 30 pallets of rink setup materials, water pumps, thousands of feet of water hose, ice augers, lighting equipment, propane heaters, supplies for bleachers. The equipment list alone, we looked at it and said, 'We're in for it here.'"

On a recent mid-January morn, I was in for it as well, as TST and their "ice-ops" crew of George Monson & Sons allowed me to assist in setting up a series of rinks. Monson is a local snow removal and landscaping outfit, and this is their first time setting up the country's largest pond hockey event.

An analysis of Kaufenberg's "equipment list" reveals a staggering degree of work (and workers) along with that mind-numbing cache of gear to put on the championships. All told, 25 rinks will be assembled over the sprawling Lake Nokomis surface. Nearly eight acres of tundra will be required to host 253 teams. Bracketed across five divisions, the tournament will bring in 1,500 players from 33 states for the four-on-four games; as in years past, a portion of proceeds go to both the Herb Brooks Foundation and DinoMights Inner City Youth Hockey.

Prior to the rink prep, the skating surface was first cleared and ice depths were gauged by Monson & Sons in early January. After the plow clears the snow, the work becomes more manageable. A grid of 24 rinks was created around the periphery of the championship rink, with each being measured and spray-painted to 125-foot-by-75-foot specifications. Each rink consists of 96 18-inch-high interlocking boards. Each board requires a "shoe" to marry it to the next one, and each shoe will need a stake to affix the boards to the ice. To make the grid system more complex: Each 96-board rink consists of 78 white boards and 18 advertisement boards. Nearly 2,500 total boards will need to be properly marked, spaced, and nailed down.

My own modest contribution comes in the form of removing constantly arriving boards and shoes from a flatbed before distributing the materials evenly among the rinks. When the fellas in the truck drive back to shore for fresh boards, the rest of the crew and I either connect shoes to boards or interlock boards together around the circumference of a given rink.

Intermittently, Nick Monson refers to a single, folded sheet of paper in his pocket that depicts the grid; despite the inclement conditions, continued warmth comes via the verbal crap tossed his way by a jolly crew. As the flow of repetition forms into muscle memory, the unsettling reminder that all these dudes and vehicles are on a lake comes with the occasional groan of ice resettling below our labor.

Over the course of the day, a rhythm develops on the ice. Spaces that were once blank and vacant become sporting arenas that the likes of NHL Hall of Famers Phil Esposito and South St. Paul's Phil Housley will glide over. Akin to the silent pride of surviving a Minnesota winter, there's an unspoken esteem to being even a small cog in this process.

"It's a sizeable event to put on," Kaufenberg says. "All told, there's gonna end up being almost 250 people working on the event from an ops side, 200 volunteers, and then 15 paid people on the construction and tent crews. And the moment play ends each night, our ice-ops crew will work all night, every night, to re-flood and re-surface every rink."

Only four men in NHL history have more goals than Esposito's tally of 717. That's never far from my mind as I ensure that each shoe I attach is frozen perfectly into place.