Trail’s End Pond Hockey

A rowdy band of adventurers sets out for a spirited game of ice hockey at zero degrees in the middle of nowhere. Why? Because they can.

Zero degrees at the Pudding Pond trailhead, and Jason Massa is smiling like he’s just won the Irish Sweepstakes. Mack Martin and I get out of the car, also grinning like idiots, and I wrap up Jason in a bear hug.

Like most of today’s crew, Jason is a longtime rugby teammate and frequent participant in our DIY adventures, which are dedicated to exploring the wilderness without asking permission or paying any fees (see sidebar below). As our friends begin to arrive, Jason lashes a snow shovel to his backpack and adjusts his snowshoes.

“It’s really not that cold,” I say, extracting our gear from my trunk.

Jason takes up his hockey stick. “I was more optimistic about the Shackleton expedition,” he says.

Photographer Joe Klementovich, who scouted locations for our snowshoe trek and hockey tournament, chose North Conway’s Pudding Pond because of the expected cold temperatures. The narrow 22-acre pond has a remote feel, yet it’s close to local medical facilities. (An important consideration, since rugby players can turn miniature golf into a dangerous activity.) Situated on town conservation land, Pudding Pond is adjacent to the 5,500-acre Green Hills Preserve, which includes Black Cap, Peaked and Middle mountains. A squiggly, 2-mile loop trail carves through a forest of beech, oak, spruce and white pine, the fresh snow trampled by a single hiker wearing snowshoes.

I say a quick prayer and make the sign of the cross, and Mack Martin and I hoist our packs and follow the others along the trail and into the woods. The son of an old college buddy, Mack has flown up from Virginia to experience the New Hampshire winter for the first time. The day he arrived, Mack and I went fat biking at Parker Mountain with Dave Harkless of Littleton Bike & Fitness. Descending the steep, gnarly single track, Harkless offered some advice — “Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go”— that seemed to have wider implications.

The next morning, Joe Klementovich took us ice climbing on Cathedral Ledge, where Mack excelled and I improved somewhat on my previous efforts. Afterward, we drove to the Wildcat Inn & Tavern in Jackson for a beer with owner Stew Dunlop, an old rugby friend, his manager, Sue Holt, Joe, and local climbing legend, Thom Pollard, who summited Mount Everest in 2016.

At 6′ 1″ and 220 pounds, Stew is a broad-shouldered, quick-witted raconteur, traits that serve him well on the rugby pitch, where he’ll joke around before knocking you flat. As the evening wore on, Stew decided that Thom, who’s in his mid 50s, should make his rugby debut at the Old Man of the Mountain Rugby Tournament, held in Franconia in June. My friends and I have all played in the tournament, since our home club, Amoskeag RFC of Manchester, New Hampshire, is the host.

Soon Stew was lecturing Thom about his “golden opportunity” to play in the tournament. An elite climber, Thom is strong and wiry, with a well-deserved reputation for superior fitness. But playing rugby with absolutely no training is like skydiving with an old umbrella.

Amidst the din of the tavern, I leaned over to Thom, saying, “This is like some guy telling you he’s gonna climb Everest — after six martinis.” Thom laughed, nodding his head.

But Stew herded our group into the lobby, where startled passersby were treated to a mini-scrum on the hardwood floor. When Thom was invited to join in, the mountaineer feigned a look of terror and ran over and leaped into his girlfriend Kristin’s arms, and our laughter echoed along the hallway.

On winter afternoons when I was growing up, my friends and I would grab our hockey equipment after school, heading for one of the nearby ponds. We’d play until it grew dark, and then I’d skate home over the rutted icy street and my mother would spread newspapers on the floor so I could have dinner without taking off my skates. Then I’d go back out and play another game in the bluish glow of the moon.

On weekends, we’d rise early, load our hockey gear onto sleds, and tramp through the woods to World’s End Pond in Salem, New Hampshire. There was something invigorating about the sharp air, steep blue sky, and the echo of sticks and pucks against the snow-padded hillside.

When my childhood buddies and I wanted to play hockey, we walked a couple blocks to Lynch’s Swamp. For today’s game, my rugby pals cut out of work early, converging on Pudding Pond from several directions. My old University of Florida teammate, “Surfer” John Hearin, an ex-Marine, along with his wife, Stephanie Testa, who owns a yoga studio, flew in from Cocoa Beach, Florida. Mike Zizza and his daughters, Sofia, 22, and Anna, 20, both students at the University of South Carolina, left Wenham, Massachusetts, for the drive to North Conway at 5 a.m.

Of greater concern is the blizzard raging across the Midwest, stranding “guest star” Ryan Swan overnight at the Detroit airport on his flight from Billings, Montana. Beyond that, my principal co-conspirator, Chris Pierce, who operates on “Piercey time,” has yet to appear with his wife, Tanya.

Using snowshoes, the group hikes into North Conway’s Pudding Pond for a remote game of ice hockey.

Sometimes I feel like the parole officer for a bunch of unruly jailbirds, sprung from the prison of adult life. They’re all accomplished professionals, but strap a pair of skates, cleats or crampons on their feet and they act like James Dean in “Rebel Without a Clue.” Certainly, the most daunting aspect of being a grownup is the logistics. You’ve got to be a seasoned tactician just to have a little fun.

Laughing and joking, we hike a mile to the empty, windswept pond, which is hemmed in by fir trees. A dome of bluish-gray clouds arches overhead, the ghost of a sun dropping toward the horizon. It’s a vast winter playground, partitioned off from the rest of the world, and we have it all to ourselves. Shortly after we arrive, Piercey and his wife Tanya emerge from the tree line, pushing their fat bikes through the newly fallen snow.

After choosing a spot to play hockey, the group moves to a low-lying dell beneath the trees to unpack our gear and start a fire.

A compactly built, vigorous fellow, Jason Massa is famous for his preparedness — as well as his habit of reminding everyone about it. Jason’s pack contains a first aid kit, hockey skates, micro spikes, spare socks, mittens and down jacket, a Jet Boil stove, a multi-tool, homemade energy bars, a Thermos of hot coffee, a turbo lighter that resembles a blow torch, and a bagful of dryer lint for tinder.

Peering into Jason’s backpack, I say, “Where’s the little car all the clowns are gonna come out of?”’

But the truth is, I’m relying on Jason’s outdoor experience, just as I am with everyone else. In a way, the bitter cold has lengthened the distance from the pond back to the trailhead, since frigid weather increases the possibility that something can go wrong. When the temperature drops to -8, even a sprained ankle or wet feet can lead to major problems. It’s better to have too much materiel than not enough.

Clearing 12-14 inches of snow off the ice

The air is so cold you can break it into chunks with a hockey stick. We have 11 players but only three shovels — a fact that Piercey keeps bringing up — and we need to clear the ice, pronto. I’m reminded of the old pond hockey adage of my youth — If you don’t shovel, you can’t play.

After doing his share, Piercey races back to the trailhead to look for Ryan Swan. The last time I saw Swanny, we played rugby in Philly; and two years before that, he, Piercey and I played for the Billings Bulls in a tournament in Missoula, Montana. We won in Philadelphia, and finished first in the Montana tournament. On both occasions, I couldn’t stop laughing.

A wry-tempered hero of the True West, Swanny, 43, is a raw-boned, easy-going fellow, a former two-sport college athlete with a touch of high lonesome in his voice. Among his other qualities, Swanny has a knack for inserting sly comments beneath Piercey’s blustery pronouncements. Together, they’re like a couple of vaudevillians.

Conditions vary, and you must be flexible, especially in winter. Within an hour, we’ve cleared a sheet of ice about 70 feet long and 50 feet wide. Eager to get started, Anna and Sofia lace up their skates and take a turn about our makeshift rink, joined by Tanya, Mike and Jason. But after 15 minutes, the ice turns granular and choppy, so we switch back into our hiking boots and choose up sides.

A hundred yards away, two figures emerge from the trees, running in snowshoes over the track we’ve created, whooping and making animal noises. It’s like a scene from “Last of the Mohicans.”

Piercey’s out front, and just behind, wearing a fur trapper’s hat and a lopsided grin, Swanny waves his arm and I drop my hockey stick and go running through the knee-deep snow.

Instantly, I’m transported back to my freshman year at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. This was long before the internet, when you wrote letters to stay in touch with the people you loved. The night I arrived home for Christmas, the sky glittered with stars, and as I came through our snowbound yard, my sporting pals, Rick Angus and Glenn Gallant, who loom over all my contemporary adventures, burst from the house and ran toward me.

“Mother!” cried Rick, and he and Glenn tackled me into a snowdrift.

Piercey says there’s a part of your brain that thrives in the wilderness — in the sort of cold, hazardous conditions we currently found ourselves in. And that part of my brain is singing when I charge at Swanny, both of us laughing.

“What took you so long?” I ask.

The crew getting ready for some pond hockey

“All flights into Pudding Pond airport were canceled,” says Swanny.

On the ice, Jason throws all the hockey sticks into a pile. He begins rummaging around, mixing them up. “Gotta shuffle the deck,” he says.

Then Jason thrusts half of the sticks to his left, and the other half to the right. Each player retrieves his or her stick, and the teams are selected.

Immediately, Piercey begins his sidewalk lawyering, insisting that we have “all the hockey players” and thus an unfair advantage, etc. But now that we’re off our skates, cardiovascular fitness and good hands are more important than hockey skill. Besides, they have Tanya, a former Division III first-team all-American in soccer at Ithaca College; Mike Zizza, a rugby stalwart who’s at the gym by 4:45 every morning; and Piercey, who thinks of himself as the “Master of All Sports,” as my old hockey teammate, Rick Angus, used to say.

It’s true that Jason, Swanny and I are hockey players and skate regularly. Furthermore, Surfer and I have played together in a hundred rugby matches, gone whitewater rafting in the Swiss Alps and running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. But on the ice, my old roommate is like a drunken toreador swinging wildly at a piñata, resulting in hard falls that make him a good candidate for orthopedic surgery.

Also, Piercey’s team has a wild card that can’t be overlooked. James McHugh “Mack” Martin, is studying in the premed program at the University of Virginia. Mack’s late father, Lt. Colonel Ron Martin, USMC, was an accomplished athlete and outdoorsman. Mack’s trip to New Hampshire is an opportunity to connect with his Dad’s home state, and with me, one of his father’s close friends.

Highly sought-after as a high school athlete, Mack decided not to play football at Columbia University to stay close to his mother, Julie, a physician, and two siblings, Julija, 16, and Ron Jr., 11. Growing up in Hawaii, Mack never got the chance to try hockey, though I played on a team with his dad in Nova Scotia. Ron Martin was a tough, smooth skating forward, matching his skill as a linebacker and captain of Acadia’s national championship football team.

As soon as the game starts, and the ice becomes dotted with little tufts of snow, Mack’s quick hands and vision, born of his experience playing lacrosse, creates a big headache for our team. The darned kid isn’t easy to fool with a head fake or misdirected pass, and never seems to get tired.

Even after shoveling and running around, I have to wear a facemask to keep my jaw from going numb, my breath echoing wildly in my ears. In our second game up to 5, Piercey’s squad is ahead 3-2. Of course, in every sport we play, there’s the element of “Piercey’s Rules,” an ever-shifting, inscrutable mass of regulations and exceptions more difficult to grasp than the Code of Hammurabi — in the original Babylonian.

For example, if we lift the puck off the ice, however slightly, and it goes between the two snowshoes we’re using for a goal, it’s ruled out. (That occurred when I foolishly thought I’d tied the score.) But when Piercey’s shot hits a chunk of ice, bounces into the air, and floats between the snowshoes, it’s a goal. It’s all very enlightening.

As we play on, the air hovering over the little rink is charged with an aura of glowing particles. This strange phosphorescence hovers over the ice as the woods grow dark and the wind combs through the trees, plowing up twisters of snow that cross the pond, rising 30 and 40 feet in the air.

As the others dart back and forth, handling the puck and calling to one another, the sound fades away and I gaze around for a moment. In a little hollow beneath the trees, the silhouettes of our companions mark the campfire, the wood smoke drifting across the pond. It strikes me that I’m right where I belong, with people I know and trust and who trust me. It feels like heaven.

By the third game it’s full contact, with bodies crashing into the deep snow amidst gales of laughter. Of course, with the rugby crowd, this always happens. Blond-haired and small in stature, Tanya has the angelic looks and superhuman strength of a woodland fairy. She’s agile and quick, with a tap dancer’s footwork and a low center of gravity. Tanya can get under your hips for leverage — and under your skin with her little asides, which are, no doubt, the product of her ultra-competitive family tree.

The Zizza sisters facing off, Sofia versus Anna, with dad, Mike, dropping the puck

Earlier, by the fire, Surfer and Tanya had a lengthy discussion about a particularly radioactive curse word, one that is socially unacceptable in North America, but which Aussies and Kiwis use as a term of affection. Every time that word came from Tanya’s sweet, innocent face, I laughed out loud.

With the game in the balance, Tanya digs at my feet for a loose puck while I’m trying to control it, so I push her over a snowbank. As she goes sprawling, Tanya accuses me of something that often leads to federal prison, and everyone laughs.

Piercey smiles at me. “Retribution’s gonna be a bitch,” he says.

With my stick slung across my hips, I say, “You’re in my world now, big guy.”

OK, so Piercey knocks me down. Three times. But when he’s scrambling for a loose puck in front of our goal, I pile into him and we go over in a heap.

They score another goal to win the game 5-3. With the wind chill increasing and long blue shadows creeping across the landscape, Piercey declares the DIY Pond Hockey Tournament complete, and begins preparing for the medal ceremony.

But I’ve kicked around my share of hockey rinks and playing fields too. As the others gather their stuff and head for the fire, I hearken back to the days of Hobey Baker, St. Paul’s School and the Lafayette Escadrille, using my knowledge of parliamentary procedure to neutralize any counterargument that Piercey might file with the International Court of Unregulated Outdoor Events.

“Next goal wins!” I shout.

The other team groans, starting back toward the cleared space of the rink. Leaning on his stick, Swanny says, “You know why we get along? You’re a positive thinker.”

“Wistful cynic,” I say, with a shrug.

Despite the bitter cold, having to shovel 12 to 14 inches of snow off the ice, and somewhat poor conditions, there were still plenty of post-game smiles.

We’re all eyeballing each other and smiling, but the chatter dies away on the wind. With the ragged, uneven ice, the game becomes a matter of geometry. You have to spread out the defenders, your attackers forming a triangle. A couple minutes into the game, I gain control of the puck in our end.

Swanny is 30 feet away on the left side of the ice, and Jason’s in the far right corner. I swing right, away from Swanny, and as soon as Mike and Piercey turn to cover my move, Swanny breaks down the left wing and I zip a pass behind the heels of the pivoting defenders.

Jason darts toward the goal, and without stopping the puck, Swanny chips it through the loose snow and Jason bangs it home.

Trash-talking over his shoulder, Piercey heads for the campfire. “Even Bobby Orr’s flying-through-the-air goal wouldn’t shut him up,” says Jason, when I shake his hand.

Swanny claps me on the shoulder. “Sweet dish, brother,” he says.

Ryan Swan (“Swanny”) was in charge of hauling the hockey sticks back to the cars after a day spent playing hockey on Pudding Pond in North Conway.

The players, insulting each other and laughing, head off the ice toward the fire glowing beneath the pines. Darkness is crowding in, sifting down through the trees like a fine gray powder. Backpacks hang from various tree branches, and just as people are testing their headlamps and busying themselves for the hike out, Surfer calls for everyone to gather around.

“Take up your beverage of choice,” Surfer says. “Thank you for the first pond hockey game I ever played in — and, most likely, the last. Great time!”

We raise our beers, water bottles and Thermoses, and a loud cheer from the assembly echoes over Pudding Pond. “Wait till the Spring DIY,” I say to Swanny. “Surfer’s gonna need his own paramedics.”

Categories: The Explorers, Winter Sports