The Flathead Valley is getting swept up in the craze of pond hockey as the first major tournament in the Northwest hits the ice this February.

by DILLON TABISH

In late February, the frozen surface of Foys Lake will transform into a vast arena of natural ice. Teams of hockey devotees — loyal acolytes of the sport’s primal nature and practice — will make the pilgrimage from across North America to the Flathead Valley. For three days, hockey will return to its roots in celebratory style.

The Kalispell Convention and Visitor Bureau is hosting the inaugural Montana Pond Hockey Classic, a men’s and women’s tournament slated for Feb. 21-23 atop the frozen lake west of town below Lone Pine State Park. A large tract of private property near the county’s lakeshore park will host the festivities, including vendors, family games and even an appearance by the NHL’s Stanley Cup, according to organizers.

Lanny McDonald, a hockey Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup champion, is acting as an honorary host of the tournament and has helped spread the word across the U.S. and Canada, inviting fans and players to converge on Kalispell for the three-day celebration of the sport’s natural origins.

“Playing hockey outdoors, like I did growing up, takes you back to the beginning of the game. That’s why I’m proud to be a part of the growing pond hockey movement in the United States and Canada,” McDonald said in a written invitation. “The tournament will be Montana’s first major pond hockey tournament and one of the first in the Northwest United States.”

So-called pond hockey is enjoying a spirited revival, spurred by upstart tournaments similar to the upcoming one in Kalispell and a critically acclaimed documentary.

The KCVB has taken strides to attract visitors to this scenic corner of the state with signature events like the widely popular Montana Dragon Boat Festival and Spartan Race. Looking for its latest attraction, this time in the quieter months of winter, Rob Brisendine and the KCVB contacted an event management company based in New England that operates two other Pond Hockey Classic tournaments, in New Hampshire and Vermont. Both events annually attract between 125 and 225 teams. The annual event in Meredith, N.H., which was the company’s first pond hockey tournament when it was established in 2010, has become so popular that it sold out more than two months before this winter’s event to teams that paid $600 each.

“We talked with the local businesses and saw what the hockey community was and what the area was like (in the Flathead),” said Scott Crowder, the commissioner of the Pond Hockey Classic management company, the largest of its kind in North America. “Being an absolutely stunning and beautiful location that has a frozen lake and the Montana hospitality — that’s what sold us. We said, ‘This can work and will be a very, very beautiful and unique place to host this.’ That’s what we look for.”

Organizers are anticipating the Kalispell tournament will attract 600 participants and roughly 1,200 spectators for each of the three days.

The tournament will feature adult teams for men and women of all skill levels participating in separate divisions. Teams of up to eight players will compete with four players on the ice wearing basic gear.

The tournament will be played in a four-on-four, round-robin format. Each team will play two games Friday and two games Saturday on the 150-foot by 75-foot natural ice sheet. Qualifying teams will compete for the top prize, the Glacier Cup, on Sunday.

Spectators should enjoy themselves, too, as festivities are planned alongside the action of the tournament.

“It’s going to be a very cool event for the area, so we’re pretty excited to be a part of it and to bring it to town,” Crowder said.

Registration is open until Feb. 17. For more information or to register, visit www.pondhockeyclassic.com/montana.