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Celebrating pond hockey—and winter

The city of Buffalo is celebrating Valentine’s Day weekend doing something it loves—playing backdrop to a huge outdoor hockey tournament and winter party at RiverWorks. And this one’s free to attend and hosted by a familiar beer name, to boot.

Come February 13-16, over 850 players and as many as 10,000 spectators will descend on the Buffalo River for the 13th Annual Labatt Blue Pond Hockey Tournament, featuring 144 teams in 13 divisions battling for bragging rights.

“There is nothing like playing hockey in the winter, outdoors with your friends,” said Lauren Christopher, public relations manager for Labatt Blue. “This is the adult version of a pick-up game on the neighborhood pond. It’s become a favorite among hockey players, and a signature event for everyone at Labatt.”

Many people who grew up playing hockey learned the game on a pond with family and friends. This tournament harkens back to that ethos using typical “pond rules”: games are 4-on-4 with no goalie, with nets just 6-inches high (standard is 48-inches).

Games will span the six outdoor rinks at RiverWorks as they have for the past seven years. When the tournament was founded, it was truly played on a pond at the Erie Basin Marina, but over the years, issues with weather (too warm, too rainy, too much snow) played havoc with the schedule.

So when RiverWorks opened, the Labatt tournament moved to its more controlled outdoor ice sheets, which also allowed the event to grow into the full celebration of hockey it is today.

A celebration of winter and pond hockey | Buffalo Magazine

More than 850 players from 144 teams take part in the weekend-long event full of rivalries and revelry.

“We’ve been able to add a lot of different elements for just the fans and the families who come out as well, which is amazing,” Christopher said. “You wouldn’t be able to do that outside.”

Beyond the tournament play, there’s ample opportunity to be entertained. The weekend packs in games and contests, like fastest slap shot and most accurate shot, as well as live music headlined by local ’80s party band Nerds Gone Wild on Friday night.

The full complement of RiverWorks will also be on display. Fans will be able to eat and drink from their full menu, use their ropes course and maybe even get up on the ziplines or rock-climbing wall if the weather is fair that weekend.

The Sabres are involved in the tournament as well, with team alumni making appearances throughout the weekend.

“Sabres alumni are a huge part of the weekend,” said Sean Green, director of athletics and corporate sponsorship at Riverworks. “We’ve had them all from Rick Jeanneret to Rob Ray, and Larry Playfair, and with the 50-year anniversary, there is even more interest and availability to get players down here.”

Tournament games are played from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with the playoffs and trophy presentations taking place on Sunday.

Breaking up the pond hockey extravaganza will be some other exhibition games. The Buffalo Police will square off against the Buffalo Fire Department on the ice in a showcase game. There will also be demonstration games from USA Sled Hockey and SABAH, who will bring their hockey and skating programs for handicapped and disabled children.

This annual tournament is actually part of a series of five that Labatt puts on throughout the winter, but Buffalo’s is one of the marquee events.

“Buffalo is always special to us. It’s our hometown and right here in our own backyard,” Christopher said.

Itching to skate?

If you want to get out there and glide with the wind in your hair before the ice melts, here are your outdoor and semi-so options:

Rotary Rink at Fountain Plaza
20 Fountain Plaza, Buffalo
Skating: Free
Skate rental: $3 adult, $2 children

Buffalo RiverWorks
359 Ganson St., Buffalo
Skating: $5
Skate Rentals: $5
$1 off admission and rentals with an Independent Health card.
*Skating not available tournament weekend.

The Ice at Canalside
130 Main St., Buffalo
Skating: $6 adults, $4 under 12, free under 5
Skate rentals: $4
$1 off admission and rentals with a Blue Cross Blue Shield card.

The Healthy Zone Rink
41 Riley St., East Aurora
Skating: $6, free 4 and under
Skate rentals: $4
$1 off admission and rentals with a Blue Cross Blue Shield card.

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