By Reg Chapman

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The quest for the Golden Shovel has begun on Lake Nokomis.

Hockey teams from around the country took the ice early Friday morning as part of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships. It kicked off with the national anthem and then the cermonial puck drop.

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“This event just embodies hockey its hockey in its purest form,” Pond Hockey Championship commissioner Carson Kipfer said.

The sounds of hockey filled the air near Lake Nokomis as thousands took to the ice for the 12th annual Pond Hockey Championships. For the past three years, the event has dealt with warmer temperatures and slushy, hard-to-navigate ice, but this year is different.

“The ice is probably the best ice that we have had in the history of the event,” Kipfer said.

More than 2,000 hockey players from 42 different states made Minneapolis their destination in the middle of winter.

“It’s pretty humbling to see people who have taken vacation time literally for the last 12 years,” Kipfer said.

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Caleb Smith came from the town of Pekin in east-central Illinois.

“We get together with friends, play a little pond hockey,” he said. “It basically brings me back to my youth, growing up, playing and just getting things going.”

This is the second year these pond hockey warriors from Pekin have graced Lake Nokomis with their skills. Like others, being on the ice is calming, taking them back to a time when playing outside was the norm, with an ice that’s unpredictable.

“Its pretty good,” Zach Sisk, also from Pekin, said. “It’s different. There are some cracks, holes you have to adjust with the ice, but we’ll figure it out.”

Minnesota makes it easy for visitors to enjoy its winter traditions by ushering in “The Great Northern” — 10 days of outdoor events that feature this pond hockey championship, St. Paul’s Winter Carnival and the City of Lakes Luminary Loppet.

“There are so many exceptional events and so many great things going on now,” Kipfer said. “To use the Great Northern as the vehicle to tell that story to people outside of Minnesota — I’m just proud to be a part of that.”

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The U.S. Pond Hockey Championships at Lake Nokomis is the nation’s largest pond hockey tournament. More than 300 teams are registered for 700 games during the week-long event.

Reg Chapman