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A pond hockey tournament that originated in Helsinki, Finland, raises money for organizations counteracting climate change. Its first Canadian iteration will take place in Hay River, N.W.T.

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From coast to coast, pond hockey is a winter tradition for Canadians.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

It’s an inspiring scene: In Helsinki, Finland, on an ice sheet the size of a football field, nine different four-on-four hockey games are happening.

The sounds echo on a cold, sunny morning: the clack of sticks on pucks, the swish of skaters turning. From atop a mountain of plowed snow from a recent storm, you can see all the action. This is a Save Pond Hockey tournament, one of several in Finland this season.

Founded in 2015, the Save Pond Hockey concept sees its breakthrough in Canada this year, in a collaboration with the Polar Pond Hockey tournament in Hay River, N.W.T., with the finals on Sunday, March 13. The Canadian organization, like its Finnish counterpart, aims to raise money and awareness of the fight against climate change. Save Pond Hockey was already a Canadian-Finnish joint venture of sorts; the co-founders are Svante Suominen of Finland and Steve Baynes of Vancouver.

Back in 2011, Suominen was a university student in Helsinki. He’d played competitive hockey as a teenager, but eventually quit. Wanting to get some exercise, he now mobilized a few buddies to play shinny at an outdoor rink.

“I started inviting all my friends and friends of friends,” he said. “We went every Monday evening, and I realized there were more people coming all the time.”

He calls it “a new start for my relationship with hockey.” He enjoyed the easygoing atmosphere of pond hockey – a term for any informal outdoor hockey, whether or not it involves a lake.

“We had so many different types of people playing together,” he said. “There was something really magical about it.”

Baynes, a stay-at-home dad at the moment, arrived in Helsinki in 2012 after two years studying corporate sustainability in Jyväskylä, in central Finland. A former classmate invited him to join the Monday games.

The players used to discuss how climate change was shortening the outdoor hockey season. Baynes had studied climate issues, and some of the others also got interested. Many remembered longer, colder winters from their childhoods – it seemed obvious that winter was changing.

They started wondering how hockey players could help fight climate change. The result emerged in 2015, when they held the first Save Pond Hockey tournament in Helsinki, aiming to make some noise about climate issues.

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The President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, plays ice hockey at the Save Pond Hockey tournament in Helsinki, Finland on Feb. 15, 2020.MIKKO STIG/Getty Images

Participation has since multiplied and nine cities around the country have hosted tournaments. In 2022, the Helsinki edition boasted 39 teams in three divisions: casual, competitive and company.

The tournaments’ profits, a grand total of more than $101,000 dollars since 2015, go to organizations counteracting climate change – everything from carbon-offset programs to wetlands restoration projects.

To attract audiences and further boost climate awareness, each Save Pond Hockey tournament opens with an exhibition game featuring hockey heroes such as former NHL players and stars from the women’s and men’s national teams. Niklas Hagman and Esa Tikkanen played this year in Helsinki, and others have included Jari Kurri and Saku Koivu. Canadian embassy staff has also joined the exhibition games.

The president of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, has participated several times. In February, 2012, shortly after he was elected to his first term, he went skating at the rink where Suominen and his friends were playing their weekly shinny.

“I was like, what, is that the president?” said Suominen. “I just went over and asked, ‘Hey, Mr. President, would you like to join our game?’ He replied, ‘Yeah, okay. Let’s play.’”

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People play pond hockey on Brown's Inlet in Ottawa, on Christmas Day 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

When Save Pond Hockey held its first tournament, Suominen invited Niinistö, reminding him that they had played together. “I love living in a country and a city where that is possible,” said Suominen.

Baynes often refers to Save Pond Hockey as a movement. “Everybody’s welcome to come out and play,” he said.

Päivi Antila has been a regular at Save Pond Hockey’s Monday sessions ever since she happened to join one of their games last winter. “They’re a friendly bunch,” she said. “They consciously try to make people feel welcome.”

She’d seen them once at a climate demonstration, waving signs attached to hockey sticks, of course.

Another player is Paul Mélois, whose mother is from Montreal and whose father is French. He grew up in southern France but remembers skating outdoors during his family’s visits to Canada.

One January evening, Mélois could be found helping Baynes clear a rink on the sea ice beside the Finnish capital. Most outdoor rinks in Helsinki are artificially cooled, but during a long cold spell, connoisseurs venture out to make an all-natural playing surface.

After hours of shovelling, scraping and flooding, they finished the rink in the wee hours of the morning. About 20 friends came to play the next afternoon. “I could barely play because I was so sore [from the shovelling],” said Baynes, “but it was still super-fun.”

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People play pond hockey at Vanier Park in Vancouver, after unseasonably cold temperatures caused the pond to freeze over in December 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

People crossing a nearby pedestrian bridge got a great view. Within a few days, the temperature fluctuated and the window of opportunity for playing on natural ice was over. “Those windows used to be much larger in the past,” said Baynes.

Hay River, N.W.T., the first Canadian location to hold a tournament connected with Save Pond Hockey, rarely experiences such challenges. The town first organized Polar Pond Hockey in 2008, but one year, 2019, was unseasonably warm, reaching 13 degrees in March. “We had to cancel the event,” said Terry Rowe, head of the Polar Pond Hockey organization, “which was obviously [due to] some sort of climate change.” This year he expects about 35 teams, ten of them in the women’s division.

Save Pond Hockey and Hay River connected through Canada’s Climate and Sport Initiative, which took applications from Canadian towns seeking to host Save Pond Hockey events. Penticton, B.C., and Stonewall, Man., were also slated for this winter, but had to cancel because of COVID-19 restrictions.

For Polar Pond Hockey, adding Save Pond Hockey to its event means greater emphasis on climate. Proceeds from an auction and a climate change and energy fair will help Hay River purchase an electric Zamboni.

Just like their Finnish counterparts, they’re holding an exhibition all-star game to raise awareness. The roster includes Meghan Agosta, Craig MacTavish, Andrew Ference and Curtis Glencross, along with locally known players.

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