One of the great privileges that come with writing the Recreation column in Isthmus is this: I get to meet people who engage in the sporting life because they enjoy it. Simple as that. They're not active because it's supposed to be good for your physical, mental and emotional well-being. They don't train or compete for fame or money. They do it because it is fun. This week's story on a local pond hockey group exemplifies this.
I've noticed Madison Pond Hockey matches for years out at Tenney Park when I've gone there to skate. But it wasn't until a few winters ago that I understood their love for the game. I was hiking the trail to Picnic Point. It was a postcard day: Pac boots scuffing through a few inches of fresh snow, dry air rendering the sky a deep blue and the campus and city skylines in high-resolution clarity. Approaching the beach at the dip in the peninsula, I heard what sounded like skates, sticks and pucks. Doubling back along the trail spur that follows the shoreline along the bay between Picnic and Frautschi points, I stumbled on one of the most perfect winter scenes imaginable.
There, in the midst of the frozen bay, a twisting, icy path had been cleared of snow. The path led to a hockey rink. On the opposite side of the hockey rink, a second skating path had been cleared to a second hockey rink. Shovels, boots, jackets and thermoses were scattered about in the snow surrounding the rinks. And there, on a quiet tree-lined semi-circle along Lake Mendota's south shore -- in the warm low-angle glow of an afternoon sun that bounced off dry snow and ice crystals as if glinting off diamond dust -- a couple dozen kids, men and women with big smiles on their faces were playing hockey.
While talking to members of the Madison Pond Hockey group, I kept hearing Andy Sullivan's name. Longtime pond-hockey enthusiast Robin Davies -- perhaps best known around town as the drummer for local rock quartets The Motor Primitives and The Sigourney Weavers, and an acquaintance since childhood -- told me that "Sullivan embodies the spirit of Madison Pond Hockey. He's always encouraging, never showboating, always passing to beginner players, almost to a fault."
Sullivan laughs upon hearing this. An employee of the UW physical plant, Sullivan, 47, is on the other end of the phone, tucking into his lunch: roast beef on an egg bagel with lettuce, tomato, onion and mustard.
"I have no need to showboat," he says between bites. "I've played enough hockey. We're all out there for fun, and if everyone wants to have fun, everyone needs to get their touches."
Sullivan started playing hockey when he was seven. "I grew up in central Illinois," he relates. "My brother and I would go back to this little pond on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and after school and play with friends."
He kept playing into his early 20s, then quit for 10 years. He returned to the game about 15 years ago, when he skated up to a group of people who were playing hockey and asked if he could join in. They said yes. Sullivan now views hockey as a game he might well play all the rest of his life.
"I just love the feeling of being on ice skates," Sullivan explains. "There's nothing that beats it. Being outdoors is the best. You've got sun and the people you're with have a great attitude."
Other versions of pond hockey can be more competitive. At the pinnacle of competition stand events such as the third annual Labatt Blue USA Hockey Adult Pond Hockey Championships, scheduled for Feb. 15-17 in Eagle River, Wisconsin, where more than 100 teams are expected to compete in nine divisions on 18 rinks.
Sullivan expresses little interest in venturing north to compete in the event, suggesting he finds greater appeal in the easy-going level of competition observed by the Madison Pond Hockey group. While its players do exhibit some degree of effort and striving, the nature of the group's play is almost friendly enough to have the feel of a social gathering with skates, sticks and pucks. This dispenses with any need for referees or even keeping score. The point is to have fun playing the game.
Sullivan adds that his enthusiasm for passing the puck derives from two considerations. "We don't want anybody to get hurt," he begins. Second, there is an impulse to help other players improve their skills. "You want people to make good plays and you want 'em to stretch their abilities a little bit and make good plays," he elaborates. "It shouldn't be easy, it should be a challenge, but it should be safe. The players that aren't as strong, we'll give 'em a little advice on where to play so they can get open and get some touches. If you're a beginner and don't skate that well, you can go out on the edge of the ice and get the puck and pass it to someone and you've helped make a play."
But perhaps the greatest source of his enthusiasm for pond hockey is the setting, the scenes where pond-hockey games take place. Another Madison Pond Hockey devotee, Bill Provencher, has posted an impressive collection of his family's pond-hockey photos online for devotees of the game to view. They convey both the group's happy enthusiasm for the game and the places where they play it. The settings are all over the local map, and include places like Lake Monona off Morrison Park or in front of the convention center at Monona Terrace, or Tenney Park, about which Sullivan speaks in tones bordering on the rapturous.
"You go to Tenney Park and there's more happiness on that pond per square inch than anywhere else in the city," he observes. "It's really fun to play on the lake with about three inches of clear ice where you can see the bottom. That's a riot. But Tenney is the best, because it's really pretty. It's kind of idyllic, with all the trees, especially on a day when all the people are out skating. All those Christmas cards and postcards that you see, there it is in real life."