Jamie and Mary Clare Matthews wanted a place where Texans could feel the magic of pure pond hockey, a place where fun and creativity defined the experience, so they launched Austin’s Pond Hockey Club in 2013. The Pond soon filled with skaters, so they added the Barn – a second-sheet expansion – in September 2016. In the Barn, a flock of Mallards hatched, giving Austin a vigorous youth hockey program growing dramatically in size and skill.
Almost 60 players now populate the Mallards’ tournament-team rosters at 10U, 12U and 14U, a sixfold increase over the club’s inaugural season, and the Mallards Minor Hockey League includes nearly 95 more spanning the 8U, 10U, 12U and 15U ranks. Those rising numbers reflect the Pond’s mission to be a place where everyone can develop, regardless of age or experience level.
That inclusive model is a point of pride for Jason Pierce, the Pond’s player development director, who migrated from Massachusetts in 2014 to help lead the Mallards. A lifelong New Englander, Pierce played AAA hockey in Boston and captained the Franklin Pierce University Ravens before arriving in Texas, where he encountered an entirely different youth hockey culture. Leaning on his experience as a USA Hockey-certified coach and a Boston Bruins FUNdamentals instructor, Pierce began building a program that would fit his new environment.
“One of the great things about Texas is that there are a lot of athletes here,” said Pierce. “And when you introduce hockey, they’re like a ball of potential-filled clay that hasn’t been shaped yet.”
Using USA Hockey’s American Development Model, Pierce and his colleagues are molding the Mallards for long-term success.
“When I visited them in Austin, what stood out to me was the strong positive vibe when you walk in the doors,” said Joe Bonnett, a USA Hockey ADM regional manager. “There’s a strong sense of purpose and a true club approach, with like-minded coaches who put the kids first and emphasize development.”
Among the key ingredients is an embrace of station-based practices, small-area hockey and formalized off-ice training. Pond programs are structured so access to ice time and coaching is not a barrier to development. Every player in the club, from 8U to 15U, has the opportunity to get on the ice and have fun playing hockey three to six times a week. And true to the Matthews’ vision, the club also offers a once-a-week pond hockey session to promote free play as recommended by the ADM.
“It’s a four-on-four format with coaches on the bench just to monitor, not to instruct,” said Pierce. “The kids do what they want. It’s a creativity-driver. We offer it in two groupings – 8- and 10-year-olds play together; 12- and 14-year-olds play together.”
Another critical piece of the development puzzle is how the Pond allocates all of its coaches throughout the club, so every player at every classification benefits from expert coaching rather than only the top players or oldest age classifications.
“Collectively, every player that comes through our doors gets non-parent coaches and the ADM,” said Pierce. “And overall, when we go to tournaments, our teams prove to be high-skill, high-compete teams.”
Later this month, the Mallards will host their own tournament for the first time, an exciting opportunity that wouldn’t have been possible without the newly built second sheet of ice. The event will include 10U, 12U and 14U competition, giving Texans a regional opportunity for an early-season measuring stick. Looking further ahead, the Pond will also host a six-week learn-to-play program with the Dallas Stars beginning in February that should further expand Austin’s growing player pool. If the pace continues, the Pond is hoping to add a 16U Mallards team as soon as next season.
“Looking at Austin in general, hockey has definitely grown,” said Pierce. “It’s exciting and we’re happy to be a part of that. But even more important, we’re excited to be helping create good people. We teach camaraderie and sportsmanship. Hockey is a vehicle for that.”