It’s 6:30 on a Saturday morning in March 2019, and I’m in a Cleveland hotel room trying to shake my 17-year-old son, Connor, awake so we can be at the ice rink an hour before his 8 a.m. game. We drove until midnight to get here and barely unloaded the car before crashing into a deep, albeit short, sleep. After dropping him off, I grab the biggest cup of hot coffee Dunkin’ has to offer in preparation for 75 minutes of rinkside pacing as I watch these boys (who resemble men) hitting, pushing, checking and shaving the ice in their relentless pursuit of the puck.
They win. There is triumph on the ice and jubilation in the locker room, then a team lunch. Afterward, another game—a close loss this time—then a stop at the hotel for showers and video-gaming with the entire squad of 15 boys crammed into a room, on the beds, on the floors, in the chairs, shoveling snacks into their mouths, drinking Gatorade, and yelling at their avatars.
At the time, I am a 41-year-old Rockville resident and mother of six, and I am envious. I want what they have.
If you have kids in travel sports or if you played while growing up, you know this regimen and the time and financial resources required. In exchange, you witness—or maybe experienced for yourself—the joy, teamwork, heartbreak and celebration wrapped into children’s sports experiences. The stacked schedules with friends and teammates, the nonstop adrenaline, and bonding events make these weekends magical.
Growing up in Silver Spring, I only played recreational soccer—the travel teams were for the most elite athletes. I never allowed myself to imagine those road experiences. As a soccer player at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, I delighted in competition. We did travel some—around the state, mostly, and occasionally as far as Indiana.
As an adult, I’ve played in coed soccer leagues, and I loved my teammates and the friendships we forged. I ran the lines as an outside midfielder and occasionally played center mid, feeling the turf burns after slide tackles, the sweat dripping down my face, and the sense of achievement when my 5-foot-1 frame knocked a 6-foot-2 man twice my weight off a header. The adrenaline was real.
But it ended after an hour and a half. After the high-fives and handshakes, we went our separate ways.
I have cheered on my children and stepchildren, who now number eight. I have gotten caught up in their battles and taken vicarious pride in their skills, whether they contributed to a joyous win or were unable to thwart a heartbreaking loss. But if I was honest with myself, I also felt some sadness that the cornucopia of emotions that travel sports bestows upon them would never again be my own.
On that count, I was wrong. I am now a Travelin’ Cluster Puck. I wear my hair down in a mane of black locks, windswept when I whoosh across the rink. I vie to muscle out defenders in front of the crease and block the view of the opposing goalie so my teammates can shoot and I can be positioned for a rebound, stick on the ice. And I do this in different cities with an amazing group of women who also love to travel and play ice hockey.
It was Connor’s efforts at ice hockey that inspired me to get in the game. In 2015, I joined the Montgomery Youth Hockey Association’s Hockey Moms program, geared toward moms of youth hockey players, at Rockville Ice Arena. I also signed up for a local coed team, the Washington Whalers.
I was on the rink a year ago when I met up with Molly Seiders. I had briefly encountered this solid defender when she subbed in for the Whalers in 2016. Now she was leading her own team. Molly is the reason I’m a Travelin’ Cluster Puck.
The Travelin’ Cluster Pucks extend the excitement of being on the ice beyond one game. Instead, we get long weekends to focus on the sport and our friendships. Our skill levels vary—some are complete beginners, just learning how to skate and handle a stick in our 40s and 50s; some played hockey in high school or earlier but are coming back after some time away from the rink. Doesn’t matter—we all get the same amount of playing time.
We are educators and scientists, government employees and retirees. We are married with and without children, single, divorced, and empty nesters. We are from all over the United States. We bond over the joy of learning from one another’s experiences on the ice and sharing our lives with one another on dry land. We commune at hockey tournaments and in our private Facebook group.
Molly, 52, didn’t pick up hockey until she was 40. She stands around 5 feet 4 with an athletic frame and sophisticated salt and pepper hair that she wears at her shoulders. Although she lives in D.C., she travels to Maryland three to five days a week to play on three coed teams and the Frederick Firestorm women’s travel team.
After spending much of her life playing soccer, basketball, volleyball and slow-pitch baseball, Molly found herself wanting to launch a different kind of team—a drama-free, all-inclusive environment with friends who loved playing hockey and traveling. She played ice hockey in the 2018 Gay Games of Paris, France, then started formulating a plan.
“After Paris, I thought to myself, Why not bring the three things I love the most in life together? I can combine travel, friendships and ice hockey, and focus it on the bonds we build together on the ice and on the road,” Molly told me between Travelin’ Cluster Pucks games in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Less than a year later, in May 2019, Molly and nine friends from around the country arrived in Zagreb, Croatia, for the Women’s World Hockey Invitational. That’s where the Travelin’ Cluster Pucks, with an average age of 48, made their rink debut, playing women—girls, many of them, since the teams had an average age of 15 years old—from Croatia and Ukraine.
Why did the U.S. women go so far away for their first tournament together? For the same reason someone might prefer to do a destination wedding: It sounded like fun. Off the ice, they toured downtown Zagreb and iconic locations like St. Mark’s Church with women from the Ukrainian and other USA team.
On the ice, the Travelin’ Cluster Pucks lost every game. But they achieved one of Molly’s major goals: forging new friendships. Many of the young Ukrainian women and their families are now displaced from their homes, and playing internationally as a women’s Ukrainian hockey team is a farfetched dream. “It’s so difficult to know that these wonderful young women were forced to leave behind their former lives,” Molly says. “We no longer see them on social media and hope they remain safe.” To that end, the Travelin’ Cluster Pucks have rounded up donations to help the women and their families get out of Ukraine.
The Travelin’ Cluster Pucks would play together again eight months later, in January 2020. Molly, five women from Maryland, and eight others from all over the United States met up in Nevada for the Las Vegas Women’s Hockey Classic and took home third in their four-team division.
COVID-19 brought most travel to a screeching halt. But in January 2022, with the world opening back up, Molly fielded another team. She took 12 women back to the Las Vegas Women’s Hockey Classic.
Kim Marshall, 61, was one of them. She had been playing recreationally around here but always doubted whether hockey was for her and thought about quitting. But at the Vegas tournament, the Travelin’ Cluster Pucks made it to their division’s championship game and lost 6-1. That changed everything for Kim.
“I would never have guessed that seven years after I put on my first pair of hockey skates, I would be sharing an Airbnb in Las Vegas with four women I didn’t know…and that I would love it, have so much fun and come close to winning a championship,” she says.
I had met Kim, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health who lives in Rockville, when we both started playing hockey in 2015 with the Hockey Moms and then joined the Washington Whalers. Like me, she plays offense on the wings.
Kim grew up in Pittsburgh as a rink rat, watching from the sidelines as her brother played hockey. The sport wasn’t an option for girls back then. She married a Canadian man who played hockey, and they raised their son, Mason, playing, too.
As women, we were in the minority on the coed Whalers team. We had sons nearly the same age who were travel hockey players. We both struggled with crossovers (a skating technique), skating backward, and using the boards to our advantage. Our commonalities gave us the courage to share our concerns and insecurities, and support each other with each improvement.
Reflecting on her best moments as a Travelin’ Cluster Puck, Kim recalls a key play at a DMV tournament in 2021 in Laurel: “I was the worst player on the team, and we had a one-win, one-loss record. We were down by one goal in our final game, but I was able to catch a rebound on my stick and score to tie the game, which got us into the semifinals.
“I’ll always remember that moment.”
In February, a month after the Las Vegas tournament, my phone began to vibrate nonstop. Molly had announced a trip to Reykjavik, Iceland, for its Icelandic Invitational, an event that hosts tournaments for men’s and women’s teams, and the Travelin’ Cluster Pucks’ Facebook group lit up. Questions and excited comments like “YES, count me IN!” flooded my feed. Women from all over the country saw the post and wanted to join the team; within two days, more than 30 had signed up to play.
Then the men—the husbands, boyfriends and teammates of the Travelin’ Cluster Pucks—started asking if Molly would organize a team for them to play in Iceland, too. Molly agreed, and the men’s edition of the Travelin’ Cluster Pucks was born.
On Sept. 28, we landed in Reykjavik with 32 players competing in the women’s tournament and 26 in the men’s event. We fielded four teams and our own cheerleaders: 16 Travelin’ Cluster Pucks groupies made up of family and friends came along.
The Travelin’ Cluster Puck teams did not win during this tournament—hard-fought, competitive games ended in ties or losses. But Iceland deeply affected us. There were two proposals on the trip, one at the base of a waterfall and another in front of the striking church in downtown Reykjavik, the Hallgrímskirkja. And since another team, Ísland, was short players during a few games and invited the Cluster Pucks to play on their squad, I joined them for their final game against the BC Beauts, where Ísland won 3-1. I was on the ice for two of those goals and contributed by providing centering passes as a left wing. Despite it being my third game that day, I skated my hardest and fastest, trying to keep up with their players, who averaged 15 years younger than ours. I played with “Murphy,” a 31-year-old Icelander who plays on the country’s national women’s ice hockey team. After a shift, she patted me on the back and said, “You’re good,” a compliment I will never forget.
This was my third tournament with the Travelin’ Cluster Pucks. My first game with the team was at a Hockey Fights MS tournament in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in May. That’s where I met Sabrina Woods, 45, one of my teammates in Iceland. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, works for the National Transportation Safety Board and formerly served in the U.S. Air Force. She’d been to Iceland before and loved it; this time around, she was looking forward to seeing it in a whole new way.
“Now I get to go with about 70 or so of my closest hockey buddies,” she said before the tournament, “and we get to play a few games as well. What’s not to love about that?”
Despite the team’s passion for the sport, we’re still relative outliers. Women make up only 3% of the 547,429 amateur ice hockey players registered in this country, according to USA Hockey, the sport’s national governing body.
Hockey North America, established in 1980, is the home for adult recreational hockey in the United States and Canada, with leagues in many major cities. According to Jason Nehmer, the former commissioner of the Washington, D.C., chapter, this area saw a significant boom in membership around 2005, when Alex Ovechkin started playing with the Washington Capitals.
Some ask why I found this trifecta of friendship, travel and sports in ice hockey and not in soccer, especially as I’d been kicking a ball since middle school and didn’t pick up a stick until my late 30s. Ice hockey takes an extraordinary level of commitment, and I respect people who invest this much into it.
Equipment costs are significant, and ice time even more expensive. A new pair of soccer cleats, shin guards, socks and a ball might run you $200. In hockey, you’ll spend between $1,000 and $3,000 on a helmet, bag, stick, ice skates, skate guards, tape and a set of pads. The travel tacks on additional costs.
Unlike soccer, you cannot show up two minutes before a game, stretch, lace up your cleats and stroll onto the field. In hockey, players arrive at least 20 to 30 minutes before every game to ensure their equipment is on properly, skates sharpened, water bottle filled and stick taped. Players often drive farther to play—in Montgomery County, there are just three arenas suitable for ice hockey games. And ice time is tough to come by—most of my games start between 9 p.m. and 10:50 p.m. on Sundays and weeknights.
It also takes dedication and grit because it is a tough sport to learn—the tenacity and perseverance of adults and retirees picking up ice hockey as their new hobby requires a unique type of person. In the adult recreational level of ice hockey teams, there’s a universal and mutual respect of everyone who gets out there.
That’s a strong bond understood by those who play, and thanks to the Travelin’ Cluster Pucks, I get to experience this bond globally. The remorse I felt as a bystander at my children’s sports experiences is gone. In its place is a fellowship shared with diverse teammates I now call friends—and with my children, as I, too, am now a travel athlete.
Jennifer Tepper is a freelance writer who lives in Rockville and Sparrows Point, Maryland, as well as New Mexico. She aspires to skate on a team with her son Connor.
This story appears in the November/December 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.