The gathering was a typical hockey crowd, the type you would see in the stands at just about any game. Ages ranged from late teens to mid-50s. There were plumbers, carpenters, corporate salesmen, doctors, heads of corporations.
What made this group a little different was that it also included a hockey Hall of Famer, a future Hall of Famer and a Hollywood actor/comedian who stars in his own series. And, oh yes, these guys weren't in the stands, they were on the ice.
"Once you're out there, skating on that surface, you're all the same," said Pat LaFontaine, the host of the Sixth Annual Williams Lake Cup, a spirited, egalitarian tournament held this past Saturday on the outdoor rink at his house in Lloyd Harbor.
LaFontaine heads a team of Long Islanders, the Huntington LowTides. The white uniform looks a lot like the Sabres jersey he wore during his Hall of Fame career, only with the logo featuring a cigar-smoking clam. The LowTides play other squads three times a week. But once a year, they host the Williams Lake Cup, a day-long three-on-three event named for the lake on which he grew up playing in Michigan. The Cup itself was donated by Pat's father, John Sr., who built the rink on that lake.
The younger LaFontaine, who broke in with the Islanders, invites five teams to the event and makes the players from disparate walks of life all feel at home. He rarely shoots during the games, preferring to pass. The same went for a Williams Cup rookie, Brendan Shanahan, who began this season as a National Hockey League player but recently retired and went to work for the league. He played with some of his co-workers in the league office and he made rink-length passes that landed right on the tape of his teammates' sticks.
Among the other stalwarts in the tournament are the Roxbury Rippers, led by player/coach Denis Leary - comedian and star of the series "Rescue Me." Leary, who also has an outdoor rink at his Massachusetts home, will be the first to tell you that he is not nearly the player that his teammate and son Jack is.
But the Williams Lake Cup isn't about being a star. It's about being out there, on a good, solid patch of ice maintained by LowTides players, shoveling the surface between games. Periodically during the day, LaFontaine got on a John Deere riding mower hooked up to a Zamboni ice-scraping gizmo to keep the ice smooth.
The spirit of the game is sheer "shinny," informal pond hockey popular in Canada. The play flows continuously. Even after a goal, there is no faceoff-just fish the puck out of the net and keep going.
Rules for the Williams Lake Cup are few and clearly written: No slapshots. No checking. No crying. No one observed the latter provision better than Jim Karsten of the 8th Avenue Grinders, who needed four stitches on a cut over his right eye and kept playing (lucky there were some doctors among the players).
Most important is the unwritten rule: Follow your passion, no matter what your birth certificate said.
"This is the field of dreams," said LowTides player Sean Levchuck, director of pediatric cardiology at St. Francis Hospital who last month performed life-saving operations on two Russian children with congenital heart defects. Like all of his peers on the ice Saturday, Levchuck realizes how lucky he is to be able to still play like a kid.
Garret Bodington, goalie for the Lake Placid Wreckers is a former college player, current men's league participant, off-ice official at Nassau Coliseum and full-time superintendent at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton. He said that as far as local competition goes, "This is as good as it gets."
His team was in fact the best at the competition Saturday. The Wreckers won the Cup, which was presented by Leary to team leader Graham Fraser of Boulder, Colo., founder of Ironman North America.
People at rinkside were kidding that everyone ought to have a rink like this in his or her backyard. Fact is, everyone ought to have something that makes the spirit soar as the Williams Lake Cup does.
There was a scoreboard and public address system. The Canadian and American anthems were played before the first games. Skates were sharpened by Joe McMahon, the former Islanders equipment manager. Spectators included Bob Nystrom and NHL chief operating officer John Collins. Participants included former Islander Benoit Hogue, who lives in Babylon, runs a business and still plays in men's leagues.
The Grinders' roster was made up of Microsoft employees, including one who took a red eye flight from Seattle to reach Long Island before a 10 a.m. faceoff. It was worth it. Lunch was catered by Piccolo Restaurant of Huntington, there was a dinner for all the teams at Meehan's Pub.
Mostly, though, the draw was the hockey. LaFontaine Sr. recalled being tugged by the sport as a child in Canada and sharing it with his children (he admitted Pat hated skating the first time he tried it, at 6). The Hall of Famer's dad remembered stringing lights along Williams Lake, behind their house, and cutting a hole in the ice and installing a pump so the warmer water could be drawn to the surface and make the rink smoother.
He usually had to wait until midnight to do that kind of work. "The kids were playing. You couldn't break it up," he said.
It was appreciated. LaFontaine Sr. was named MVP of the tournament Saturday, considering he made it all possible in the first place.
"When you play hockey," he said, "you want to play for the rest of your life."
Here's wishing that all of us have something that stays in our hearts for so long.