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Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky signs autographs as he attends the World Pond Hockey Championship, in Plaster Rock, N.B. on Feb. 26, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky signs autographs as he attends the World Pond Hockey Championship, in Plaster Rock, N.B. on Feb. 26, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Camaraderie draws players back to New Brunswick pond hockey tourney Add to ...

Tucked away in a remote corner of New Brunswick’s rural Tobique Valley is a piece of puck heaven for hockey players looking to enjoy the game’s outdoor charms while renewing friendships over a “pop” or two.

It’s the world pond hockey championship, played every year since 2002 on Roulston Lake in the village of Plaster Rock — population 1,135.

“We just love this town,” said Jim Allan of the Montreal Lagers. “It’s a good place to come and the hockey is so much fun.”

In fact, Allan and his buddies love the place so much that they bought a ramshackle house across the road from the 20 rinks that are spread across the small lake that hosts the four-day competition.

Allan said the team, which has attended the event for the past 10-years, grew tired of renting places around the village during their annual “pilgrimage.”

“So we said you know what, I wonder how much a house goes for? We paid $27,000 for the house, did a few renovations and here we are.”

A luxury hotel it isn’t, but the house can bunk 14 hockey players and features a clubhouse type bar in the basement, complete with photo-covered walls and hockey memorabilia, most of which carries a distinct Montreal Canadiens theme.

It’s also a tournament famous for the large party the team throws that has come to double as a fundraiser for local high school students on their way to university or college.

Allan said they don’t charge for the beer, but ask for donations for a scholarship, which is then doubled by the team once the final tally is known.

“It’s a good way to give back to the community that gives so much to us for four or five days a year,” he said.

The tournament is the brainchild of Danny Braun, who with his friend Tom Chamberlain launched the initial event attended by a “modest” 40 teams mainly from the Maritimes.

This year’s championship has grown to 118 teams — 100 in the men’s division and 18 in the women’s. Many sport colourful names such as PEI Gongshow, NYPD Narco Rangers, Pond Scum and Hey Leafs Win?

“I guess every Canadian province is represented plus the Yukon and 15 U.S. states,” said Braun. “Countries like the Cayman Islands — a hockey hotbed — England and Switzerland and places like that.”

Braun said many of the teams keep returning year after year because of the fun involved in playing the game outdoors and because of the friendships they make over time.

He said the four-on-four competition, in many ways, is secondary.

“A lot of guys say it kind of takes them back to their childhood a little bit,” said Braun. “For the returning teams it’s a bit of a reunion.”

The sentiment is shared by a team from Baltimore, which arrived in Plaster Rock this year minus one member.

Team member Daniel Durantaye said one of the players didn’t make it across the Canadian border after a more than 15-hour road trip.

“He got detained at the border,” chuckled Durantaye. “We left him at a hotel next to a Wal-mart.”

Durantaye declined to say why, but added that his brother would be flying in to Bangor, Maine, on Friday to help bolster the team.

And as for why they keep coming back after four years at the tournament and a top-10 finish last year, Durantaye can hardly contain his smile.

“We love hockey obviously,” he said. “We have a great time at the bar, we have a great time on the rink . . . we just love every bit of it and I’ll come back as many years as my knees will allow it.”

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