Langford outdoor hockey tournament marks 65th anniversary

By Bill Brady

The final weekend of January marks the 65th anniversary of Langford Park Hockey’s Winter Classic invitational — a celebration of the sport the way it was meant to be played: outdoors, in the elements, on rinks lovingly tended by volunteers.

“Outdoor ice is what we are about,” proclaims the LPH website in describing the four smooth sheets outside Langford Park Rec Center, a place where, “Through your earmuffs you hear the distinct sounds of sharp blades on hard ice, frozen pucks against snow-backed boards, the coach’s whistle and the rumble of a nearby train.”

That description would make Norman Rockwell proud, and the invitational is a chance for LPH to share its unique atmosphere with other teams in the area.

The 2024 field includes two teams representing the Edgcombe Hockey Association, two from the City of Lakes Titans program in Minneapolis and one each from the St. Paul Capitals and Roseville. Organizers were seeking an eighth team to fill out the field as of this writing.

The weekend gets underway with three squirt-level games (mostly fourth and fifth graders) on Friday, Jan. 26, starting at 4:30 p.m. Each squad is guaranteed at least three games as they move through to the championship game at 5 p.m. Sunday. Other events include a Mite Jamboree (second and third graders) on Saturday and a Mini Mite Scramble (age 4-first grade) on Sunday.

A storied past

Though the participants and dates of the earliest Winter Classics are lost to history, (“Record keeping is not our strength,” LPH Board President Laura Mays wryly noted), we know the tournament dates back to before LPH was LPH. In its earliest incarnation, players wore uniforms bearing the acronym STAPA, in honor of then-team sponsor the St. Anthony Park Association.

At some point in the 1970s, “A playground worker unilaterally switched the logo to Langford,” according to a post by local resident Roy Magnuson on the Langford Park Hockey Facebook page. “There was some pushback from association members until an informal poll of the kids revealed a 100% concurrence that since the playground was Langford Park, that’s what the unis should say.”

There was a point when the Winter Classic was both a hockey and a basketball tournament. That changed in 2021 as COVID put the pause on anything indoors, though the hockey tournament continued outdoors. “Truthfully, it was crazily overcrowded trying to do both tournaments simultaneously,” Mays said. “It is also nice to use the indoor gym as hockey locker rooms.”

It takes a village

The aforementioned ice sheets used for the tournament don’t just make themselves. They are the work of volunteers made up primarily of parents of current players, some parents of former players and a few folks with no parental connection who just think there’s nothing better than spraying fire hoses full of cold water under the moonlight on frosty winter evenings. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it).

“The Ice Crew is still a neighborhood favorite and what we brag about the most,” said Mays. She singled out Pat Renner as one of the key leaders, along with neighborhood hockey dads like Ryan Courtney and her husband, Daniel Mays.

“But what’s really cool are the community members who don’t have kids who help,” she said. “One neighbor lives across the street from the rink and just enjoys the process and the camaraderie. We’ve also had young adults, often U students, who like to help too, especially if they grew up playing hockey.”  

Those rinks are, of course, used for much more than just the Winter Classic. As soon as it gets cold enough, the Langford Park players practice outdoors several times a week. When formal practices aren’t happening, they are prime gathering spots for pickup games.

“We have many kids who ‘live’ at the rink,” Mays said. “Their pick-up games are a unique part of our program.

“It really demonstrates this beautiful unity of different aged kids, different skill levels of kids — but they all toss their sticks in a pile and select teams by separating the sticks and then off they go— self-refereeing and helping the little ones play with the bigger kids. It’s truly magic to watch.”

Local vendor support

The hot chocolate flows copiously for Winter Classic spectators, as does the Dogwood Coffee, supplied by “Coach Dan” Anderson, a neighborhood resident and former hockey coach. He is among many local establishments that provide refreshments at the tournament.

Last year’s big hit was a special “Winter Classic Sausage” specially made for the event by the meat department at Speedy Market. Rest assured, it will be back this year, among many other tasty treats.

And since it’s their 65th year, they’ll be staging a “Winter Classic Dance-Skate” on Saturday evening to close out the night.

“We’ll be pumping out tunes to boot dance on ice, or skate around and dance on skates!” Mays said. “It should be a fun event, even for non-hockey people.”

The Langford Park Hockey classic will celebrate its 65th anniversary in late January. These photos were taken from the 2023 classic depicting the Squirts division. Submitted photos from Langford Park Hockey.

For more information about the Winter Classic, including how you can volunteer, consult the LPH website, 

Bill Brady, the copy editor for the Bugle, is a former Langford Hockey parent and Ice Crew volunteer. His son, Nick, played in the LPH program in the late aughts and early teens.

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