CORALVILLE, Iowa (AP) — It was the kind of day where beards sprouted icicles, wearing wool socks was an exercise in wishful thinking, and your beer rattled frozen inside its can.
That is to say, the perfect afternoon for pond hockey.
“This is the roots of the game out here,” said Tommy Haines, who on a recent Sunday was one of the first players to arrive and climb down the hill to a pond tucked away in a Coralville neighborhood.
Soon, a pond-side fire was crackling, a couple of 12-packs were tucked into a snowbank and Haines and his buddies were lacing up their skates.
“There’s something extra special out here versus the indoor game,” Haines told the Iowa City Press-Citizen before pushing off onto the ice.
Last winter, Coralville resident David Greedy began clearing the snow off this secluded pond at the bottom of a tree-lined ravine that runs through his neighborhood. Since then, it’s been a winter meet-up spot for the small but growing group of pond hockey lovers.
You can find a pick-up game several days a week here on Greedy’s Pond, as it’s come to be known by the local rink rats, weekdays included. On this day, 11 skaters shrugged off temperatures in the teens for an afternoon on the ice.
“A lot of it’s the outdoors, a lot of it’s the camaraderie,” said Greedy, who fell in love with the sport after taking up skating a few years ago.
His makeshift rink is about 100 feet by 50 feet, or about half the size of a regulation rink, and is lined by snowbanks instead of boards. Greedy runs a hose down from his house from time to time, smoothing out the grooves with a fresh coat of ice.
This isn’t the only local pond where hockey’s played, of course. The city of Iowa City in recent years has maintained a pond at Lower City Park for skating, and the overhead lighting there allows for hockey after sundown.
Andrew Sherburne, like many you’ll find on the local rinks, grew up in climes even colder than Iowa where pond hockey may as well have been part of the grade-school curriculum.
“Up there it’s just part of the winter tradition,” said Sherburne, a Minnesota native who now lives in Iowa City. “It’s not the only thing you do, but it’s just like sledding, throwing snowballs and making snowmen.”
Haines and Sherburne are partners in an independent movie production company, Northland Films, which made a 2008 documentary titled “Pond Hockey.” With Haines directing and Sherburne serving as a producer, the filmmakers traveled the U.S. and Canada and immersed themselves in the sport’s culture and history over the course of three years.
“It was really kind of a labor of love, that film,” Haines said of the documentary, which examined the shift hockey has seen in recent decades from its outdoor origins to modern indoor rinks.
The documentary won several awards at independent film festivals, and it aired on the NHL Network and regional PBS stations. It also stoked Haines and Sherburne’s passion for a sport they grew up playing.
Back in Iowa City, the filmmakers began looking for other pond hockey enthusiasts, but there were few to be found.
“We slowly started picking up some other people,” said Sherburne, who has written and published a children’s book about pond hockey. “At first we were just picking up anybody we could get who owned a pair of skates just to skate with us so we could get three-on-three. But eventually it blossomed into this.”
To coordinate games, Haines started an Iowa City Pond Hockey Facebook group that today has more than 100 members — about two dozen of whom are active players.
“I’m from Minnesota, and when you go to a rink there and you’re new, you don’t feel that welcome because there are so many good guys playing,” said Haines, who this winter built a rink in his own backyard for his two young kids. “But out here, you’re just hoping some guys will be coming out, so you get a range of players, and everyone is welcome to come out and skate.”
Glenn Pauley of Solon is one of the players the two filmmakers have recruited to the rink. Pauley, an Iowa City firefighter and paramedic, once responded to an emergency call at the City Park pond when one of the hockey players slipped and cracked his head on the ice. Pauley struck up a conversation with Haines and Sherburne, and they invited the firefighter to skate when he was off the clock.
Since then, Pauley has been a regular on the pond.
“It’s as pure as it gets,” said Pauley, who also organizes the annual Johnson County Guns and Hoses Hockey Game, where Eastern Iowa police officers and firefighters square off at the Coral Ridge Ice Arena for charity.
On this day, each game started with players tossing their sticks to the center of the ice, where Haines collected them into a pile, then pulled his stocking cap over his eyes.
“Ancient tradition,” he joked, tossing the sticks to either side to randomly assign teams.
Low-slung slatted boxes were used in place of a netted goal and goalie, and there were few rules: icing isn’t called, and there’s little checking. Games were three-on-three, first to five goals wins.
As director of the Iowa City Youth Hockey Association, Bob Gutwein spends much of his time playing indoors at the Coral Ridge Ice Arena. Out on the pond, he said, it’s a completely different game.
“When you get on the rink, it’s a little more aggressive, a little more competitive,” Gutwein said. “Out here, people are playing just for the love of the game, and the enjoyment of being outside and getting some exercise in the cold winter. That’s the real appeal for me.”
Sean McCall of Iowa City said while he enjoys playing indoor hockey, he looks forward to the weekend games for the casual camaraderie and the fast-paced, free-spirited play.
“I like this more for the atmosphere of it,” said McCall, who has even taken a long lunch break to escape to the pond during the work week.
This is the time of year that most grumble about Iowa’s seemingly never-ending winter. But here on Greedy’s Pond, they won’t mind if spring takes its time.
“It’s invigorating,” Sherburne said. “You get out here and you have the wind blowing in your face and the open sky. There’s just nothing better than skating out here.”