Rhys Yeakley grew up in Maine, where the local high school had an outside ice rink that the fire department flooded every fall and he skated on all winter.
“I probably spent 5,000 hours of my life outside playing hockey when I was growing up,” Yeakley said.
He now lives in Middleton, coaches the Caldwell High boys soccer team and plays roller hockey in Nampa.
But for one weekend a year, he’s transported back to his youth for the Idaho Pond Hockey Classic in Ketchum. Yeakley was among more than 110 players who competed in the 10th annual event Saturday and Sunday at Christina Potters Outdoor Ice Rink — a nearly two-acre ice sheet that’s usually built before Christmas and maintained through Presidents Day.
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The beginner/intermediate division played all day Saturday. The advanced division competed Sunday. The Sun Valley Suns hockey team schedules a weekend off for the event so its players can enter.
Piers Lamb of Boise grew up in Hailey and started the tournament when he worked for Blaine County. The first tournament was in Hailey but it has found a home in Ketchum, where it’s run by the local parks and recreation department.
“It is one of the best days of the year for sure,” said Annie DeAngelo of Ketchum, who plays on a team drawn from staff members of the Community School.
Many of the tournament participants, including DeAngelo and Lamb, played outdoor hockey as kids.
“It’s playing hockey in a natural environment,” Lamb said. “There’s something addicting about the smell and the giant sheet of ice and the speed you can skate at. It’s kind of the way hockey started. ... You’re smiling ear to ear the whole time.”
The Saturday division drew 19 teams for a double-elimination tournament. Games last about 30 minutes (12-minute halves) with three staged side-by-side on the rink. Each game gets about a 70-foot-by-140-foot section of the ice rink, with PVC piping used as boundaries. The goals are 5-foot-wide wooden boxes with a 12-inch-wide, 4-inch-high opening on each end for the puck — a tiny target even from point-blank range. The center section is the “goalie.”
The six-person teams play 4-on-4 with on-the-fly subs. Checking and slap shots aren’t allowed.
“It’s sort of a finesse game,” Lamb said. “It’s a much different game than regular hockey.”
Victor Antablian of Meridian plays in the tournament every year. The rest of his team travels from Southern California, where he used to live.
The group has turned the weekend into a series of traditions, including breakfast at Goldy’s in Boise and a stop for supplies at Walmart in Mountain Home on the Friday drive to Ketchum.
The next stop is at the outdoor rink in Hailey.
“We’re all excited to step on the ice for the first time outdoors — that’s where Hailey comes in,” Antablian said. “We strap on our skates and we play for an hour or so before we get to Ketchum.”
Erika Connelly of Ketchum enters the tournament every year but doesn’t have the childhood memories of so many others. The 31-year-old Community School teacher didn’t start playing hockey until five years ago. She didn’t even skate before that.
She arranges two Community School teams each year.
“We’re trying to win at least one game,” Connelly said. “It’s not really about the wins for us. It’s just doing something with our colleagues that’s not school-related.”
She uses the rink as part of her curriculum as a P.E. teacher. Once a week, her middle schoolers go there for hockey and skating.
“So I get to play with them,” said Connelly, who also plays on an indoor hockey team. “I try to get there after school a couple times a year. Usually people are there that you can pick up a game with every afternoon.”
The inspiration for the tournament was the documentary, “Pond Hockey,” that includes footage from the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Minnesota. Even the prize is the same — a golden shovel.
“I rented out a pizza restaurant in Hailey, showed the documentary and got all these hockey players fired up,” Lamb said. “That was the first year we did it. It turned out to be something great.”
The tournament has grown from one day to two and now attracts teams from neighboring states, but there isn’t much room for further expansion. The Saturday final last year was played in light created by vehicle headlights.
“Daylight is one of our biggest enemies,” Lamb said.
The Saturday tournament features a festive atmosphere. Local restaurant Grumpy’s served brats and beer this year, while kids played on the massive snow piles that surround the rink. Teams have arrived dressed as clowns and vikings. Others have worn suits and Christmas sweaters. Antablian’s team is the White Russians — named after the adult beverage, not the nationality. One team this year played in slacks and sport coats.
“It’s way more about the camaraderie and hanging out and having a fun day of hockey than it is about winning,” said Yeakley, whose team won a golden shovel in 2015 and 2016 but came up short this year. “The most fun years we had we lost, because the more you win, the more you have to play. After six hockey games, you kind of wish you were (on the sideline) with the other guys.”
Ketchum’s two-acre ice rink
Christina Potters Outdoor Ice Rink is built each winter at Atkinson Park in Ketchum. The ice covers nearly two acres. It’s open from about Christmas to Presidents Day and maintained with a Zamboni. The rink generally is open from 9 a.m. to dusk daily, but sometimes weather forces closures. The recreation center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except holidays. Skates, helmets, hockey sticks, pucks, goals, broom ball equipment and balance assists are available to the public for free.
If you look closely, you’ll spot a few small skating rinks in Idaho yards in the winter. Rhys Yeakley of Middleton and Victor Antablian of Meridian, who play in the Idaho Pond Hockey Classic in Ketchum, build small ice rinks in their yards each winter.
Yeakley’s rink is 20 feet by 50 feet. He frames it with boards, puts down a tarp and floods the area. The frame rises an inch or two above the ice to stop pucks from sliding into the snow.
“I buy extra skates at thrift stores,” Yeakley said. “The kids in the neighborhood can throw skates on and play.”