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East Lyme — If five or 10 Electric Boat engineers carefully analyze ice composition and thickness, then suggest it's not likely anyone would fall through the surface of a given body of frozen water, it's probably safe to venture out.
This is not theoretical, by the way.
With some regularity, a loose aggregate of EB engineers gather on weekend mornings in East Lyme to test the ice at Gorton Pond.
They do so by playing a joyous brand of ice hockey — pond hockey — that harkens back to the days of youth and reflects a kinetic purity that's as much about winter ritual as it is about the sport itself.
"I never played organized hockey. We didn't have it growing up," says Mike Davids, one of five EB engineers who showed up Saturday to scrimmage on a "rink" of snow-shoveled Gorton ice.
A coin of low-watt sun hovered over the pond, dodging wispy clouds and offering a bit of pale light to reflect off the snow piles and the gray-silver rectangle of the "rink" itself. The whole scene looked like a still life called "Caspar David Friedrich Does Hockey."
"It's definitely a winter thing," said Craig Taylor. "It's about being out here. I think a lot of us like the pond more than the rink, for all of these reasons."
Davids said, "The fun of pond hockey is that it's not quite as furious as rink hockey. It's good for casual players like myself, but it also works with various skill levels. The better players will instinctively match up against each other, and those of us not as good pair off, as well. It works really well that way, and it's still competitive. Plus, we're out here."
It's been a good winter for pond hockey enthusiasts, with long stretches of decidedly frigid weather. Taylor said he drilled through the ice before a game last week, testing its suitability for sport. "It was over 4 inches thick," he said. "That works. When the ice is good, we try to get out once a week or so. You never know how long the ice will last, and not all ice is the same. If it's frozen and thawed a few times, and if slush or water's gotten in there, it can change."
Given that several of the regulars have children, and they're all subject to random weekend responsibilities, the turnout for the pond hockey outings can range from four to 10 or 11. And while the core membership of the group lies in their EB relationships, it's also true that casual passersby might spot a game going on and show up with their skates and sticks.
All are welcome, said Taylor, who was instrumental in organizing the pond hockey outings.
"EB has both varsity and club level hockey teams, but it seemed like not too many people played pond hockey," he said. "I asked around, though, and, sure enough, there are a few of us. It's like, if you've never tried it, you've got to come out and experience it. It's a different thing, and a lot of players like it better than in the rink."
David Aloi, who started off playing roller hockey and then played for years on the official EB teams, said he loves the pond hockey version. "Recently, the Electric Boat teams have had a lot of new, young talent, so I had to retire." He laughed. "But this is pretty great."
Though Saturday's five-player turnout might seem a bit limiting in terms of an actual game, the men weren't bothered at all. They paired off in a two-on-three situation, and the skating and puck action was fast and fluent.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the players all wore shirts or hats with logos of National Hockey League or Division I college programs. But, interestingly, most said they didn't particularly follow or root for a specific team.
Taylor, for example, sporting a Vancouver Canucks NHL T-shirt, said he bought it because it looked cool. Meanwhile, Mark Chmura's shirt commemorated a recent Frozen Four event, which is the yearly NCAA hockey championship tournament.
"I think we probably all like the idea of the sport and the idea of getting out and doing it in this environment," Chmura said. "Sure, it's fun to watch hockey and great players, but what we're doing is different. This morning, I couldn't wait to get here. I kept looking at my watch, saying, 'Is it time to go yet?'"