After three years of winning the 30-and-older silver division at the National Pond Hockey Championships in Eagle River, WI, the Waupun Wolves team from Waupun, WI, knew it was time to take a big step at the popular annual celebration of outdoor hockey.
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So they made the jump to the tournament's gold division, the top tier in the weekend-long festivities in which hundreds of teams compete for titles in 16 different divisions.
"This was the first year we moved up to gold. Being over 30, we thought we were going to get smoked," Waupun's Cory Buchholz said. "We have one guy who played D-III college hockey and the rest of us played junior hockey, so we thought we weren't going to handle it too well."
But when the two-time defending gold division champion Shattuck Pioneers from Minnesota suddenly weren't entered in the tournament, the field was wide open for the Wolves. Playing a well-rounded game, the Wolves eventually found themselves in the championship game last Sunday. They appeared to have the title in hand when the Milwaukee Showponies scored to tie the game with 30 seconds remaining in regulation.
"We ended up going into three overtimes before we finally scored," said Buchholz, who manages a rink in his hometown. "I was at the point where, whatever happens here, I'm happy. I just want it to get it done. It was getting warm out, the ice was getting slushy. It was getting nasty. We got a break. A guy picked one out of the air and scored."
The title was a huge accomplishment for the Wolves, but it was also a new chapter in a lifelong friendship between Buchholz and his teammates, including Doug Koerner, who has been playing with Buchholz since the two were in kindergarten. With two of the team's members now living in Detroit, the crew comes together specifically to compete in this annual tournament.
"We're going up there to have a good time. We always do. It's awesome to win, but we all get along great. We have an awesome time," Buchholz said. "Eagle River is a great place to have this event. It's a great site to see."
This year's event in Wisconsin proved to be another successful installment in a landmark event that began in 2005. Last year's tournament played host to over 2,000 players from 31 different states. And with 25 separate rinks set up on a massive frozen lake, it has quickly become one of the great competitions in the hockey world.
"We played our first game at seven in the morning. Getting to the lake and dressing in this tent is kind of weird. Then you get on this lake while the sun is just coming out and there are 25 rinks of people doing this," said Buchholz, who is already thinking about defending his title in 2014. "There's going to be a huge target on our back. We only have five guys, so we're looking to add another. But we're ready to defend the gold title."