words & photos :: Todd Lawson
Nobody really knows exactly where the game of hockey originated, but Montreal laid claim to the first organized game at the Victoria Skating Rink on March 3, 1875. During that game, two teams with nine players each made history by writing Canada’s national identity onto a frozen sheet of ice with skate blades. Fast forward 145 years, replace the indoor rink with a frozen outdoor pond (or lake) and the game remains the same. Only now, 129 players from 21 different teams with players from all across Canada carve their skate marks into one of the most stunning outdoor rinks in the world during the 11th Annual Lake Louise Pond Hockey Classic.
Having no prize money, or goalies to rip shots at, keeps things humble. Camaraderie is the name of the game.
But this tournament isn’t about the numbers. It’s about good ‘ol fashioned hockey in its purest form, in the heart of winter on natural ice. There is no better combo than playing shinny on a storied lake at the foot of the towering Rocky Mountains; it’s what keeps luring teams back year after year. Within this amphitheatre, wind-swept and blanketed in a thick coat of Alberta winter white, teams battle it out over 2 days of 4-on-4 action on 6 rinks, to see who can lay claim to bragging rights for a year.
“It’s a pretty top notch place to play some hockey, first and foremost,” says Kevin McClellan who plays for Cross Canada Connection. “It’s a great chance to get together with our guys. We’ve gotten to know a bunch of other guys over the years too at the tournament so it’s fun to have a little reunion and a getaway.”
The Faces of the 2020 Lake Louise Pond Hockey Classic
CCC pulled off the rare rookie feat and took home the trophy in their very first year, but haven’t been able to wrestle it back in the nine years since. Having no prize money, or goalies to rip shots at, keeps things humble. Camaraderie is the name of the game. And being surrounded by good people in an unparalleled setting makes the tournament as red-and-white Canadian as it gets.
“There are lots of teams here that do play hard but it’s a friendly competition,” says Zane Ziemmer of The Wolverines from Spruce Grove, Alberta. “Some of us have known each other since we were 6 years old from minor hockey, so we’re here for the fun of it, and because of the beautiful country. It’s such a great getaway for our wives and us. We leave the kids at home so mom and dad can get away for an adult trip.”
My trip to this famed pond hockey hotbed encompassed a different on-ice challenge. My task? To capture the essence of this Canadian rite-of-passage and its characters using a camera that fits into my pocket; using action shots, time lapses, portraits and video from all angles to tell the story. I packed my skates and my iPhone11Pro and stepped onto the ice to experience what some call the most scenic place in the world to play hockey.
“I mean look at it out here,” says Jamie Turner of the two-time winning Steelhawks, a Calgary team who’s been lacing up the skates at the Classic for the past eight years. “Playing on a mountain lake, it just doesn’t get better than this. It’s incredibly beautiful. After the game the kids like to strap ‘em up and get out here and shoot the puck around.”
When they’re not shooting the puck around, families can take advantage of skiing at one of the Rockies three world-class resorts (Lake Louise, Sunshine Village & Mt. Norquay) or try dog sledding, sleigh rides or snowshoeing within the borders of the Banff National Park. Even the hotel itself is an adventure. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise has been around since the turn of the 19th century, and has been home base for the Pond Hockey Classic since 2009. All of the tournament players and their families stay at the hotel, it’s part of the charm.
The annual Saturday night BBQ dinner and dance at The Brewster Barn gives teams a chance to let loose and celebrate, especially when Gary & Larry from The Suds are onstage hyping up the crowd for a cowboy line dance. Standing in for a drink line inside the Barn, (a venue as Albertan-as-it-gets) I asked a player how much it costs to enter the Classic. He looked at me with a friendly, half-drunk smile and shrugged his shoulders.
“I can’t remember and I don’t even care,” he said. “As long as I can skate I’ll keep playing here. It’s a thing of beauty.”—ML