Bristol hockey tournament honors good friend
Within six months of Matt’s death the community came together, flooded a back yard with a garden hose … We walked into this back yard ... and it was just breathtaking.
— Dave Dibley
BRISTOL — With temperatures hovering in the mid-30s Saturday morning, the fourth annual Dibley Cup — an outdoor hockey tournament celebrating the life of Matt Dibley, who died in a hiking accident in 2016 — came very close to being the “Dibley Gathering.”
“Since the weather’s not cooperating and the ice is so bad, we were going to just have a free-skate, and have food and drinks and kombucha and a fire,” said Dave Dibley, Matt’s youngest brother and organizer of this year’s Cup, at the newly renovated Bristol Ice Rink.
“But then everybody got here and they wanted to (hold the tournament), so everybody put these rinks together today. They just went for it.”
Indeed, by 10 that morning, sounds from the two-rink tournament rolled across the Mount Abraham Union High School parking lot — the pock-pock of hockey sticks against ice, the shhhhrrriffff of pivoting skaters, snatches of conversation, of cheers, of pop music, and the occasional hollow plonk of a puck hitting the boards.
The Dibley Cup typically goes all day, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The three-on-three tournament is limited to 20 teams and every year the bracket is full. Usually each team can count on playing at least three six-minute games on one of two mini-rinks set up with regulation Pond Hockey goals, which are low to the ground and feature two foot-wide openings.
But because of the ice conditions — spots of exposed concrete were circled on the ice with orange spray paint — this year’s tournament was single-elimination.
“Today we’re zooming through it,” Dave said. “It’s 38 degrees. It’s supposed to rain later today.”
In July 2016 Matt Dibley was hiking in Lincoln with a friend when he lost his footing and fell off a cliff. He died from his injuries two days later. He was 30 years old.
Matt was born and raised in Indiana. He came out to Vermont to go to college, said his dad, Mike Dibley, who lives in Michigan now and who travels to Bristol every year for the Cup.
“He was a natural at sports,” Mike said. “He was the most coordinated kid. Super-quick feet. He was even better at soccer than he was at hockey.” He paused for a moment. “Which is why it’s so goofy that he fell like he did.”
Mike wore his son’s high school hockey jersey for Saturday’s tournament. As he stood at the boards telling stories about Matt, the occasional friend or community member would skate over, offering a hello or a hug or an introduction.
“He hit his head,” Mike continued, remembering the 3 a.m. phone call from a Burlington neurosurgeon. “He could have broke his leg or something, but instead he just hit the wrong spot.”
It’s hard to come back for the tournament every year, Mike acknowledged, but he wouldn’t miss it.
“Matt’s mantra was ‘Be nice to each other out there, people.’ And this,” Mike said, indicating with a gloved hand the action and the fellowship behind him on the ice, “this is what Matt was about. So many stories about Matt are stories about him being part of this community.”
“Matt’s favorite book was ‘Walden,’ by Henry David Thoreau, and he embodied the (book’s) central message of self-actualization and self-reliance,” wrote family members for Matt’s memorial.
At the time of his accident, he had been living off the grid in Lincoln, in a cabin uphill from his dear friend Nancy Stevens. He brought in his own water, cut his own wood for heat and used a composting toilet.
“He fished, he foraged for mushrooms,” his dad said. “If you wanted to survive, you wanted Matt next to you.”
Mike’s eyes welled up with tears for a moment.
“I mean, he was a badass.”
And he was creative.
“He wrote a lot. I have his journal at home… He drew. He did poetry. He had recipes in there. He had inventions in there.”
The ice on Saturday seemed to be holding up after a couple of hours of play, so Dave Dibley made an executive decision to extend the tournament from single- to double-elimination. The announcement was greeted with cheers.
“I think this is a pond-hockey culture up here,” said Dave, who now lives in Salisbury. “You look around and you see guys wearing Carhartt gloves, Kinco gloves, oven mitts — it doesn’t matter.”
He recalled the first ever Dibley Cup, which was held behind Skimmer Hellier’s house.
“Within six months of Matt’s death the community came together, flooded a back yard with a garden hose — this huge back yard just full of ice — and organized this whole thing,” he said. “My family and I, we flew out from Indiana and Michigan, and we walked into this back yard … and it was just breathtaking.”
Matt’s buddy Pete Zalonis is one of the Cup’s cofounders.
“Four or five years ago I was living over on Maple Street and just started like building a small rink in my back yard — it wasn’t very big,” Pete recalled. “I was friends with Matt and we kind of started this weekly thing on Tuesday nights, where a bunch of friends would come over after the kids were in bed and just play pond hockey for a couple of hours.”
A few months after Matt died, Pete, Skimmer and Seth Beck came up with the idea for a hockey tournament.
“We’ve always had good luck with ice,” Pete said. “Mostly. A couple of years ago it got warm like this and essentially the last games were played on slush, where the puck was moving really, really slow, and it was drizzling a little bit. But it worked. We had built up enough ice (at Skimmer’s) over the winter, it was several inches thick, and we just kept playing.”
This year, Pete’s team got knocked out early in the tournament. Later, as he watched a game from the sidelines, he was struck in the forehead by a deflected puck. It left a small gash and a big lump, but he decided to forgo a trip to the hospital.
“That’s how we pass the torch around here,” joked Dave, who this year replaced Pete as the Cup’s chief organizer. “We hit each other with a puck.”
Minutes later, local resident John Anderson got whacked with a stick, which chipped his tooth.
More than 50 games got played on Saturday.
By day’s end, Will Gusakov, Rory Jackson, Bobby Stoddard and Chris Urban (who called themselves “Bucks in Velvet”) became the first Dibley Cup team to win back-to-back tournaments.
“The ice just BARELY held on but we were able to get through the championship game,” Dave wrote in an email on Wednesday. “We had to abandon (one of the mini-rinks) because it became too dangerous to play on.”
Proceeds from the tournament will help support community recreation programs.
BE NICE TO EACH OTHER OUT THERE, PEOPLE
A popular photograph of Matt shows him in a flannel shirt, sporting a beard and a bushy ponytail. He holds a golden chanterelle mushroom in his hand.
His family’s foundation would eventually use the photograph for a series of billboards in his home state, each one carrying Matt’s mantra.
“The main thing is getting Matt’s message out there of being kind to each other,” Mike said in a 2018 video about the billboards. “At this time in the world, we need it. Badly.”
For more information about Matt’s family’s foundation, visit inspiringgood.org/be-nice-to-each-other-out-there/.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]
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