There’s no easy way to access Pincherry Lake in Eagle River, Wis.
That’s what makes it such a remote hockey hotspot.
John Aspenleiter’s wife’s family has the only cabin on the small lake, and Aspenleiter and his buddies make their way up from Milwaukee every winter.
To get to the lake, the guys have to jump on snowmobiles and ride about a mile and a half from the main road. Once they get to the cabin, they have one goal in mind: get the ice rink prepared.
“We spend the first day or two doing nothing but what we call being ‘iceologists’ — getting a nice rink going — and then from morning until night just playing pond hockey and just having fun,” Aspenleiter said. “It’s not just competitive adults out there; it’s bringing the kids out and getting them involved.”
The core group of guys has been coming to Pincherry Lake for about 25 years. From their fun experiences on the pond, the guys formed the Pincherry Lake Loons.
The Loons play a ton of hockey throughout the winter months. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon is spent on the lake at Humboldt Park, the main hub for pond hockey in Milwaukee. From noon to sundown there are continuous hockey games.
“It’s a great group of people, and we all play down in Milwaukee in various leagues,” said Nick Knezevich, the newest member of the Pincherry Lake Loons, having played for four years.
The team members also play in the Riverwest Hockey League, an adult league. Knezevich is an avid player, competing in games three to four times per week.
“Everyone knows everybody from [the Riverwest Hockey League], and then they put this team together when this tournament started and started coming up here,” Knezevich said.
The tournament that Knezevich refers to is the ultimate in pond hockey: the Labatt Blue/USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships. The tournament takes place only about 10 miles from the Pincherry Lake Loons’ home pond in Eagle River.
The Loons, who range in age from the early 30s to 50s, played in their sixth tournament this past February. In their first year, in 2009, the Loons finished as runners-up in their division. This year, the team went 1-2 in the Novice 21+ Division.
“We come into this tournament with a really positive attitude and we take it very light-heartedly,” Knezevich said. “We don’t take it too seriously and don’t get chippy or anything. It’s just all about having a good time.”
It’s been a tradition for the original six members of the Loons to travel to the Pond Hockey Championships. However, in 2013, founding team member Michael Follstad wasn’t able to compete in the tournament. In late 2012, Follstad was playing in a hockey game and took a seemingly harmless check from an opponent. But the hit caused Follstad to suffer a seizure as he collapsed and went through convulsions. That prompted a diagnosis that he had brain cancer, which he has been fighting ever since. Knezevich has filled in on the ice for Follstad the last two years.
The Loons dedicate all their pond hockey games to Follstad. Team members wear stickers on their helmets with a picture of Follstad and carry around a large cardboard cutout of Follstad’s head to every game.
“We think about Michael a lot and wish he was up here with us,” Aspenleiter said. “Last year it was a big shock to everybody in the hockey community back home about Michael. He’s got a lot of friends. He’s hoping to be back here next year, and he’s hoping to be on the ice again soon.”
Members of the Pincherry Lake Loons love playing in the Pond Hockey Championships. The guys have great chemistry on the ice and know each other’s style quite well after playing so much hockey together in their adult league and on Pincherry Lake.
“It’s just the camaraderie we have with each other,” Aspenleiter said. “The first year that we played in the Pond Hockey Championships, we made it all the way to the finals and we lost to the team just by a goal. It’s intense and competitive, and we just have a lot of fun doing it.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
If you think you’re in pretty good shape – or even if you know you’re not – it’s possible to step into, say, a touch football game or a casual softball game without completely embarrassing yourself or winding up on the couch for a week with myriad pulled muscles.
But if you want an honest assessment of your current fitness level, try jumping into a hockey game. You will get a splash of cold water – or better yet, ice shavings – on your face.
While it’s true that many adult hockey league players are perhaps primarily motivated by the camaraderie and enjoyment of the sport, the fitness benefit cannot be overlooked, says Kevin Universal, a member of USA Hockey’s Adult Hockey Council and the president of the Carolina Amateur Hockey Association.
Once you start, you don’t want to stop. But once you stop, you’ll feel it once you start again.
The beauty of hockey
A shift in hockey combines the controlled dash of a 400-meter race with the urgency of an even shorter race.
“There are perishable skills – the combination of having the short, sprinter-type lung capacity, then getting back for a quick rest and sprint up the ice over and over,” Universal said. “That’s challenging for a lot of people."
That’s why it’s important to keep playing, even if it’s just once a week. If you fall out of that routine, you will feel it.
“I think we have at least a handful of guys on my team who travel a lot and don’t have time to work out except for hockey,” Universal said. “That’s their one or two days of exercise a week, and it’s so beneficial. Aside from just hanging out and having fun, joking around with the guys, they’ll use that as a primary means of exercise.”
Other workouts don’t measure up
Unless you like to race the person next to you on the treadmill or try to beat yesterday’s distance on the bike or elliptical, there isn’t much true competition in gym exercises. That doesn’t mean you aren’t working, but you aren’t working the same way you are when you truly compete.
“Being a part of the game and having something on the line, it makes you dig a little deeper and makes you get into it more and get more benefit,” Universal said. “When you’re not doing that and just out recreationally exercising and trying to burn calories, you don’t get the benefit. I have friends that run or lift weights, but if they aren’t getting that type of hockey workout consistently, they feel it after games and you see it in their play.”
Universal notes a recent example to emphasize his point: a guy who had played on one of his teams a decade ago before moving away has just returned and started back in hockey a few weeks ago.
“He had regularly exercised at the gym, but he was so gassed the first four or five games,” Universal added. “He’s finally getting his legs back. It’s funny. He regularly works out, lifts weights competitively. It’s not the same when you have to go out and sprint.”
Never too late to start
That said, don’t let the conditioning learning curve associated with hockey be a deterrent. If you used to play and are trying to get back into it, it’s never too late. Same goes for adults who have never played before.
Universal falls into that latter category. He says he grew up playing street hockey, but he never played in an organized league on the ice until he was 34. He picked it up after his kids took up the sport and he “got the itch” when some other newbies convinced him to try a beginners camp.
“I regularly run into people as adults and I encourage them to pick up the game,” Universal said. “You don’t have to have grown up with it. You just have to have the desire, and you can have some fun out there and get fit.”
Now 48, Universal can’t imagine life without the sport in so many ways – with fitness being primary among them.
“I feel the difference. I feel the lung capacity and I’m able to work harder in other areas,” Universal said. “This past weekend I did a hike with a 1,700-foot elevation drop over 1.3 miles. That’s like doing 170 flights of stairs. My legs aren’t sore, and I attribute that so much to skating. I’ve tried lacrosse, football, track, swimming, baseball, and this is definitely by far the most beneficial workout.”