Last updated: April 7th, 2020
When it comes to massive world-renown pond hockey tournaments, you probably wouldn’t think of New Brunswick, little lone the small town of Plaster Rock. Yet, it’s here, in this super small town of just 1,500 people, that the world’s largest pond hockey tournament takes place each and every year. Attracting teams from all over the world, as many as 120 will compete on the small and frozen Roulston Lake, surrounded by a frosty forest.
I’m not sure how I heard about this tournament but somewhere a few years ago, I read about the World Pond Hockey Championships and have wanted to attend ever since. It’s not easy though. After all, Canada is a big country and New Brunswick is 4,222 kilometres (2,623 miles) away from my home city of Calgary, Alberta. It requires an expensive flight, a rental car, a hotel stay, and a team of five.
But in 2020, the 19th year of the World Pond Hockey Championships, I made it happen. I rallied together a team from Calgary, all of whom I didn’t even know, and flew over to New Brunswick, the only province in Canada that’s officially bi-lingual.
The Largest Pond Hockey Tournament in the World
It’s quite the sight to see. 40 teams play simultaneously on 20 rinks, although there are actually 23 rinks in total. There are dozens of massive lights set up so that teams can play at night. The lakeside pavilion is covered with heavy-duty tarps and turned into a heated building where teams can gather, drink beer, eat some food, and listen to the live bands that play each night of the tournament. After all, a pond hockey tournament isn’t truly a pond hockey tournament without a good party.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I grew up playing outdoor hockey in Northern Alberta, but I had never actually played pond hockey. In pond hockey, there are no goalies. Instead, the net is much smaller at just 10-inches high, which helps to keep pucks on the ice and not shot into the air where spectators can get hit. This makes the game safer for spectators but also changes the way it’s played. Will you keep a player around the net to guard the puck against going in or push all four players up to the offensive zone for maximum chance of scoring? Will you box up all the players on defense to make it hard for the opponents to get close or will you be more aggressive and take the man? It’s totally different. Plus, the ice itself is very different as well. In an arena, the ice is carefully manicured, artificially created, and much friendlier to the skate blades. The puck glides effortlessly and you can skate fast. In pond hockey, anything can happen to the ice. First of all, it’s natural ice created from the freezing of the lake, which makes it quite rough. It’s also much harder due to the super cold temperatures and has a lot of fractures and cracks in it. Some of the rinks we played on had massive gouges and even deep cracks that we’re probably a good 6-inches deep. This makes it much more dangerous in terms of skating, especially when skating backward, as it’s much easier to fall when your blade gets caught in a crack. The puck also bounces a lot, hitting the rough surface of the ice and bouncing over the stick blade. However, both teams are playing on the same surface, so both deal equally with the impurities of it all.
What makes pond hockey special, however, is the atmosphere. For the most part, teams are just out to have fun. Sure, we’re all there to compete, but the most important thing is having fun while playing Canada’s sport in the elements. On the other hand, there are some teams that are truly there to win. You’ll see this during playoffs on Sunday, the last day of the tournament. As the playoffs narrow down towards the finals, the true competitiveness and skill really start to shine.
A True Community Effort
It can be easy to overlook when you’re out skating around, but the real magic of this event is the fact that it’s organized and put on by volunteers in a town that has less than 1,500 people. This is a huge event to organize. They have to get the ice ready, organize the food and drinks, book the bands, organize the shuttles to help people travel from as far as Grand Falls, and make sure all 120 teams have a successfully-run tournament. I can’t imagine the work that goes into it, but somehow, the whole town gets together and makes it happen.
Because of this shear love for the game and the community, many of the teams actually come back year after year. We met teams who have been coming for 15 years! One team that we played is a team of Canadians who all live in the Cayman Islands. They use this tournament as a way to come back to Canada and relive their youth and their love for hockey. Another team has taken it even further. The Montreal Lagers, a group from Montreal, actually bought a house across the street from the tournament and have essentially turned it into a shrine, complete with a bar and hot tub. That “one team” has now become five teams, with many of the fathers now bringing their sons. More than 20 of them now sleep in the house, using bunk beds to turn it into a massive dorm room. They even serve their own canned beer, decorated in their team colours. It’s incredible.
A Competition for Hockey Lovers
Each team is guaranteed to play five games. After that, it depends on how far you make it into the playoffs. Basically the top 32 teams make the playoffs and from there, it’s single-game elimination all day long until the championship game. Our team won four out of our first five games and made the playoffs, but lost our first game early Sunday morning. It was disappointing, especially losing by just one goal, but nonetheless, it was a really great experience.
For anyone who loves hockey, this is definitely an experience to add to your bucket list. Without a doubt, playing in the tournament is the best way to experience it, but even if you just wanted to come and watch the games, and even partake in the evening festivities, you can certainly do that as well.
Where to Stay
If possible, staying in Plaster Rock is the most convenient thing to do. However, there’s only one small motel and a few homestays. Therefore, many people end up staying in bigger towns such as Grand Falls. That’s what we did. If you want to party, the tournament provides volunteer shuttles to take people around. Grand Falls is about 35-40 minutes from Plaster Rock by car.
Best Western Plus Grand Falls: Like most Best Western’s, this is a great hotel to stay at. It has spacious rooms, super friendly staff, a pool and hot tub, a small fitness centre, free breakfast, and even a bar! Also, and this is important, they actually have good coffee. We generally don’t like the coffee served at hotels but we really liked it here. Throw in free parking and free WiFi and you’ve got yourself a great hotel! It’s also right across the street from a gas station, convenience store, and Tim Horton’s.
Settler’s Inn and Motel: This place is walking distance from the World Pond Hockey Championship, which makes it a very convenient place to stay. We haven’t stayed there, so we can’t comment on how good it is, but in terms of pure convenience, it’s the winner!
Where to Eat
Depending on where you stay will determine where you eat. For example, Grand Falls has many more options for food. However, Plaster Rock actually has one of the best Italian restaurants we’ve ever dined at and there’s other food such as hamburgers and hot dogs available at the tournament itself. Here’s where we ate during our stay:
Lil’ Peppinos (Plaster Rock): It’s hard to believe, but this little Italian restaurant is the best one we’ve ever eaten at. Seriously. We’ve been all over the world, including Italy, and yes, this restaurant ranks #1 with us for Italian food. They’re quite famous for their pizza, which we didn’t even get to try because they were out of dough. After all, they make their own dough and their own pasta! I’m kind of happy they were out of dough because it forced us to try the pasta, which was unbelievably tasty. I had the Spicy Chorizo Gnocci and everyone else had the Baked Chicken Parm Pasta. At first, everyone was jealous of my dish as it looked so good, but in the end, everyone was happy with what they got. I shared mine with Karla and can say that both options were five stars. In addition, their Italian sodas with whip cream were out of this world. Highly recommended!
The White Moose (Grand Falls): One thing I didn’t expect to find in Grand Falls was fine dining but White Moose totally nails it. The food is inventive, delicious, and has a beautiful presentation. They even grow some of their own herbs inside the restaurant, which you’ll see upon entering. We tried a variety of things on their menu, which changes with the seasons, including Korean BBQ and cured Atlantic Salmon, both of which were very, very delicious. For dessert, we indulged in their Belgian chocolate dome smothered in hot white chocolate sauce, as well as their creme caramel dish made with coconut milk. Everything was good and the pricing is actually very reasonable. As mentioned, what we had likely will not be on the menu when you visit. That’s another reason this restaurant is so special. They support local, fresh farmed foods, as well as local businesses and artisans. So, the menu changes seasonally to reflect what they can get. So, if you’re looking for fine dining, this is the place to go!
Le Grand Saut (Grand Falls): Another popular restaurant in town is Le Grand Saut, which can’t be missed on the main road (Boulevard Broadway). It’s inside a beautiful white house and definitely has the best “curb appeal” of any restaurant in the city. They’re also famous for their pizzas but have a big menu with lots of choices for all tastebuds. I ended up having the Cod au Gratin, which was “cheesy-licious” while Karla opted for the Chicken Parmigiana. We also had the Red Velvet Cheesecake for dessert, which was very rich and tasty. This is a restaurant that will appeal to everyone and we really want to try their pizzas when we return.
Other Things to Do in New Brunswick
First off, if you’re in town for the tournament, you might want to get a massage. If you’re in the Grand Falls area, I can definitely recommend getting a massage at Therapeutic Hands, a local in-house massage studio. It’s actually not too far from the Best Western hotel. Both Karla and I needed one after spending two weeks filming winter festivals in Ontario and Quebec and it was really great.
During the winter, New Brunswick is a great place for outdoor activities. Other cities that are driving distance away include Fredericton, Saint John, and Moncton. You could also drive to Hopewell Rocks, which is the #1 attraction in New Brunswick and one of Canada’s top natural sights. You won’t find many people there during the winter, but you’ll still get to see the beautiful rock formations that have been carved out by the tides for millions of years. This is a great place to witness the highest tides in the world.
Quebec City is also nearby, about a 5 hours drive from Grand Falls. You may even be able to time your visit with the world-famous Quebec Winter Carnival. There are lots to do if you plan on visiting New Brunswick during the World Pond Hockey Championship.
For more on what to do, check out these articles below:
- Things to Do in New Brunswick
- Exploring Stonehammer Geopark
- Things to Do in Quebec City in Winter
- Things to Do in Ottawa in Winter
- Winter in Canada
- What to Wear during the Winter Season in Canada