The puck was about to drop to start a peewee hockey game between the Keene Cobras and Northshire Bulldogs Sunday.
Skates crunched to a full stop, sticks banged on the boards, indecipherable cheers came from parents sporting custom team jackets, coaches barked out face-off instructions, and AC/DC blared from the sound system at Keene ICE.
But away from the cascading cacophony of noise, a long-cherished rite of passage for most New England hockey players is quietly melting away.
In pond hockey, there are no boards, no coaches, no sound system, and — perhaps most importantly for many hockey players who cherish memories of staying out on the ice until sunset — no parents. The claps and bangs of indoor play are replaced with whispering carving noises from skates and whistling wind.
With the rise of increasingly specialized youth sports, the omnipresence of handheld devices and continued trends resulting from climate change, pond hockey has gone from a staple of the game in New England to a rare treat reserved for families who put in the resources and effort to build a small backyard rink.
“Everything is so structured on the kids’ end that they’re either playing inside, or that’s it, (unless) they have a backyard rink,” Luke Bergeron, a 41-year-old parent and hockey player from Peterborough said Sunday. “I have one, but it’s only half ice because of what we’ve had for weather lately, but it’s a dying thing.”
While ponds still freeze during the winter in the Monadnock Region, the window of ideal conditions for pond hockey is shrinking every year, according to studies by the National Weather Service and the University of New Hampshire.
One key statistic monitored consistently throughout New England and in the Granite State at sites like Lake Winnipesaukee is the “ice-out” date, or the last day ice remains on a body of water. Since the 1970s, according to UNH’s New England Regional Assessment, the ice-out date throughout New England has come earlier and earlier, which, coupled with increasingly delayed and warmer winters, has drastically reduced the availability of pond hockey opportunities for players.
A 2017 study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information compiled a broad range of winter weather data from across the United States, and found that the American winter, on average, has shrunk by more than a month over the past 100 years.
Depending on how much one is willing to spend — basic supplies will cost well over $1,300 from services like Iron Slink or EZ ICE — a backyard rink can be more carefully maintained and even cooled with the proper pipes and insulation installed. Ponds are completely at the whim of nature.
When Bergeron grew up in Montreal, and later in Jaffrey, pond hockey was not only a rite of passage, but the only way to learn the skills of the game.
Gilmore and Sunshine ponds were the hotspots back then, Bergeron said, and he skated with a tight cohort of players, since basketball was the powerhouse sport in Jaffrey.
These days, coaches like John Parelli, a 45-year-old Keene engineer, follow more strict guidelines set forth by USA Hockey, the chief governing body that sanctions most youth play in the United States. The guidelines encourage “small area games” and other limited sessions focusing on skill development for young players.
This means that until players reach the squirt level at age 9, they will not have played a game on a full sheet of ice with the more complicated rules of offsides and icing, unless they paid extra to play on a special travel team.
Parelli says he likes the small games regimen, known as the American Development Model or ADM, which was developed in 2009 in conjunction with the NHL to help American players compete on the global stage. Its goal is to promote healthier choices in the sport regarding head injuries and aerobic conditioning.
“I think it almost brings that kind of pond area mentality to the practice,” Parelli said after his Cobras peewee team beat Northshire in a final-minute thriller Sunday.
However, Parelli says, the increased presence of coaches and parents, coupled with new practice incentives from USA hockey — mainly sharing or “splitting” the ice with other teams by laying down a barrier at center ice to make renting ice time more affordable — make the freewheeling experimentation he and Bergeron grew up with on ponds harder to achieve.
“It’s not like the old days,” Parelli said. “We don’t even have full ice to ourselves. ... You know, that’s USA Hockey.”
Parelli and Ben Ballou, coach of the Keene Cobras Squirt Orange team, say one of the biggest impediments to getting the kids moving and being creative is the ubiquity of smartphones and video games.
“I haven’t had any of the kids (on the team) talk about going out to a pond,” Ballou said after his team met a narrow defeat against the Upper Valley Storm Sunday morning at Keene ICE. “There are more video games, cellphones, and kids aren’t getting out as much as they did.”
Parelli even had to ban his players from talking about the Fortnite video game in the locker room.
“The computer generation is not a good generation,” Mike Wright, Parelli’s brother-in-law, quipped.
Wright recalled the antiquated Cheshire Ice Arena — “the barn” — the area’s only indoor rink before Keene ICE opened in 2015. The boards needed replacing, the Zamboni was failing, the lighting was poor, it was frigid, and the electric bill was prohibitive. For years, players were checked into a chain-link fence before glass was installed in the late 1980s. The arena, which closed for skating after Keene ICE opened, is part of the Cheshire Fairgrounds in North Swanzey.
Since then, the game has significantly advanced in the Monadnock Region, with players participating in programs like the Keene Cobras practicing two or three times a week, according to coaches like Parelli and Ballou. Games are almost every Saturday and Sunday throughout the season.
In addition, Keene is gaining a reputation in hockey, with Keene High School’s boys team winning the state championship last year.
The sport is so organized locally now that, according to coaches and longtime players like Bergeron, there isn’t even enough time to play pond hockey, assuming conditions will allow it.
But for Ballou’s 9-year-old son, Nathan, there was only one thing he wanted to do when he got home from the rink, even with a tempting alternative.
“I got a Nintendo, but I’m only allowed to play it for like two minutes,” Nathan groaned as he looked up at his father.
“But would you rather play that or go skate on your pond?” Ballou asked.
For Nathan, no further deliberations were required as he grinned.
“Go skate on the pond!”