For an athletic event which claims to crown the best in the universe, the Intergalactic Winter Croquet Tournament is rather modest. Three days before the first mallet crack, five teams had signed up and the trophy had gone missing.
But by 7:30 on Saturday morning, 14 teams had gathered in the Park Row Cafe here, to talk strategy over coffee and pancakes with real maple syrup.
Intergalactic Winter Croquet is loosely based on a game called Poison. After knocking their ball through a series of wickets, players must hunt down opposing teams until only the winner remains. A least a foot of snow and ice on Rusty Parker Park is considered optimal. But this year’s competition was unseasonably warm, in the 40s, leaving only small patches of dirty, melting snow on the east side of the field.
The tournament began as a gag in the early '80s, as a way for Vermonters to break cabin fever. Tom Beardsley, the general sales manager for local radio station WDEV says the name came later.
"We felt that we’re the only winter croquet tournament that we know of," Beardsley says. "And I think we had a team one time that came with spacesuits on and antennae. We figured they were from another galaxy, so 'intergalactic' fit."
Actually, a quick check of Google shows that folks in Waterbury aren't the only ones playing croquet in the wintertime. As the tournament gets underway, I start my search for the intergalactic part of this intergalactic tournament. The first team I come across is from the Wesley United Methodist Church in Waterbury. They’re local, but they say they work in God’s world, which is intergalactic.
As the first seven teams line up on the field, a pattern becomes obvious. A team from the local gym will face the local glass company and the Waterbury rotary club on the eastern wicket. But at least one team, the Plain Folk, is doing its best to live up to the name of the tournament.
Wearing long multicolored bathrobes, hooded sweatshirts and gray alien face masks, the Plain Folk certainly set themselves apart from the crowd. When asked where he’s from and what he’s wearing, Jason Bonner answers, “France” and “Dolce and Gabbana and Chanel.”
Nine-year-old Lydia Raymond is more forthcoming. She admits that she’s just wearing an old nightgown over her coat before she takes off across the field to show me that she can do the moonwalk.
Despite the obvious comedic value of a small girl moonwalking while dressed as an alien, no one seems to notice.
Not everyone who plays in the Intergalactic Winter Croquet Tournament is a good croquet player. In fact, skill isn’t required to win. The Waterbury Fire Department has won more often than not, and has earned a reputation for being sore losers.
Kenny Ryan has been with the Waterbury Fire Department for three years, and he bristles at the idea that his team is less than sportsmanlike.
"We might just be more in shape," Ryan says. "I don't know what it is."
Mike Kerry has been with the fire department a bit longer, and he knows how the team got its reputation. One year, when the Fire Department was the first team to be eliminated, they brought a fire truck over to the edge of the field.
"It was much more wintry," Kerry says. "And we kinda sprayed some water. Some people got upset. Some people thought it was funny."
On the one patch of snow that hasn't melted, the firemen build a ramp to guide their ball through the last wicket. But it doesn’t take long to discover the fire department’s real secret of success. Every time the official isn’t looking, a fireman casually steps over the team’s ball and taps it into a more favorable position.
I mention this to Carl Etnier, a radio talk show host on WDEV and the "co-official official" for this tournament.
“Well they can cheat as much as they want as long as they don’t get caught,” Etnier says. “It’s like a traffic infraction. If the police don’t see it, then you as a citizen reporting it doesn’t make it illegal.”
Before long, the first round is down to just a few teams, including the Waterbury Fire Department and the Lamoille Society for the Promotion of Croquet, four high schoolers in hand-me-down blazers. Even though the trophy has never been awarded to a team from outside the county, the locals still erupt in excitement as the perennial winners are knocked out.
Nick, Zack, Sam and Wesley are seniors from Lamoille Union High School, a 40-minute drive from Waterbury.
"We’ve been practicing all week," Sam says. "First, second, and eighth periods are our croquet periods every day."
These teenagers got up at 5:30 this morning to get here. So, when the crowd starts rumbling that maybe the outsiders shouldn’t be allowed to take the trophy home, Tom Beardsley is called over for a ruling.
"The trophy will go with you guys," Beardsley tells the team. "But we've gotta have a name and a number so next year we can get it back. I mean, just look at these people, do you want them all trailing you next year at this time?"
In the interest of time, the final game between Lamoille Union and the Junkyard Dogs is reduced to a simple poison duel. Each team makes a tentative opening shot before Lamoille moves in for the kill.
After reasonable assurances that the trophy will be returned in time for next year’s tournament, the Intergalactic Winter Croquet Rotating Trophy is allowed to leave with the kids from Lamoille.
There’s still been no ruling on whether it would ever be allowed to leave the galaxy.
This program aired on March 20, 2010.