MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Organizers of a popular winter event on Lake Minnetonka made some big changes this year.
The North American Pond Hockey Championship became a bean bag tournament instead of a pond hockey tournament due to thin ice.
Saturday morning, dozens of bean bag boards lined the Maynard’s parking lot in Excelsior. Normally, the thousands of athletes and spectators would be on the ice but this year the tournament shifted onto solid ground.
“It’s still fun but it’s definitely different,” said Jake Pernula of St. Louis Park.
Competitors left the pads and skates behind, instead using a bean bag to move their team ahead in the tournament.
The unseasonably warm start to winter forced the North American Pond Hockey Championship to make the change a few weeks back.
“We have some fracturing, some slush, the ice wasn’t thick enough for the event to go on safely,” said J. Lindsay, an event organizer.
Even with the new format, many hockey players were unwilling to drop out of the tournament. Lindsay expected thousands to participate over the weekend.
“It is fun to just rally, that’s the spirit of Minnesota. You just got to roll with it and that’s what we did and everyone embraced it,” Lindsay said.
While the game of bean bags isn’t exactly a contact sport, one team still wore yellow helmets.
“Greg was notorious with the yellow helmets and so we all have yellow helmets on,” said John Klick of Excelsior Brewing Company.
For those on Team Excelsior Brewing Company, the equipment keeps them close to friend lost last year.
“Today’s the day. This is the day he went down, unfortunately,” Klick said.
Fellow teammate Greg Riebe died suddenly on the ice in the middle of a game in January of 2015.
“What we went through last year, it was tough weekend,” said Niles Lewin, an Excelsior Brewing Company teammate.
The grief is still there but the team has found a way to heal by raising awareness of ARVD or Arrhythmogenic right ventrical dysplasia, the condition that took Greg’s life.
“It’s all heart health is what we’re embracing,” Klick said.
Pond hockey may have a different look this year on Lake Minnetonka but, for those who knew Greg, this weekend was never about the tournament.
“Bring the awareness, that’s what we really want to do with this thing,” Lewin said.
The pond hockey tournament runs through Sunday.
Money raised from the event will go to the Hendricks foundation which helps adapted hockey leagues.
Greg’s friends are also fundraising and raising awareness on behalf of the Minnesota Heart Institute Foundation.