Hockey off the grid and amid glaciers

It was Saturday, Nov. 7, and there were no NHL games. With the season start targeted for January but not yet approved, several NHL players — including the 2019 rookie of the year, Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks — as well as Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater Patrick Chan boarded two helicopters and disappeared off the grid.

“I got a call the day before to play hockey at the top of a mountain and I was ready to go,” said Pettersson, 22.


With their hockey sticks and skates in tow, they were ushered to the top of a remote mountain, roughly 65 miles northeast of Vancouver, British Columbia. What they discovered at 6,000 feet above sea level was pure and magnificent.

“It was just surreal,” Pettersson said after he initially saw from the helicopter window the lake they would be playing on.


The stunt was the brainchild of Bradley Friesen, a local helicopter pilot and social media influencer who is an expert in scouting British Columbia’s most spectacular terrain. It’s not uncommon for him to organize impromptu sporting events on untouched outdoor playgrounds.

On a ride in late October, Friesen noticed that massive blocks of glacier ice submerged in the lake had floated to the top. Once the lake froze weeks later, the icebergs remained and Friesen took advantage of the dramatic backdrop, spending four days preparing a makeshift rink.

But the conditions had to be just right for a hockey game.

“It created a very James Bond-type of landscape of massive boulders of ice,” Friesen said.

But for hockey to be played, the conditions had to align. Variations in the weather were fragile and unpredictable day to day. “Everything has to go right,” he said.

Before the helicopter flights, all Transport Canada coronavirus safety protocols were followed, Friesen said. Each passenger, including the players, figure skaters and photographers, completed a prescreen questionnaire and received temperature checks. Masks were worn during the 30-minute ride.

Chan and his wife, Elizabeth Putnam, a fellow Canadian figure skater, were the first to arrive just after 7 a.m. With the sun still rising and the temperature still low, they immediately hopped on the ice.

“My triple axel days are long gone,” joked Chan, who retired in 2018 after winning gold in the team event in South Korea. “My best hope was to do a double axel.”

Nearing 11 a.m., 10 hockey players, five of whom are in the NHL, competed atop the mountain. The group included Pettersson, Thatcher Demko, Alexander Edler and Zack MacEwen of the Canucks; Troy Stecher of the Detroit Red Wings; and free agent Jason Garrison.

“Brad sent some videos beforehand, and it just looked stunning,” said Pettersson, a native of Sweden. “I’ve never skated on a big pond before.”

The players were divided into two teams: Red versus Blue. With a single net, the men played “half-ice,” hockey’s answer to half-court basketball. It’s a four-on-four game to 5 with a shared goalie, where the team on defense must clear the puck to be on offense. They played two games that lasted 2 1/2 hours.

Turquoise icebergs served as natural boards, helping to stop rapidly fired pucks. But not always. Pucks that missed the goal and the icebergs slid “200 feet away, at least,” Pettersson said.


“A lot of the guys said it was like out of ‘Mystery, Alaska,’” said Friesen, referring to the 1999 hockey film starring Russell Crowe.

Demko, one of the breakout stars of the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, did not play favorites while tending the net for both teams, as each won a game. The sun made it difficult to see at times, and the 5-inch thick ice was slippery.

“Just the skill level is unbelievable,” Chan said of facing the pros. “The things Elias could make the puck do with his stick is just ridiculous.”

Before the age of social media influencers, word-of-mouth made Friesen the helicopter pilot to the stars. A decade ago, he shuttled former Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa to a Seattle Seahawks game, and the two quickly became friends.

Friesen, with his Instagram-famous dog Mr. Bentley, has given aerial tours of British Columbia’s back roads to celebrities and athletes like Kevin Love of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, the cast of “Riverdale,” and actress Hilary Swank.

“To show off my backyard and show the world where I live,” he said, “that gives me a lot of pleasure.”

The sun was fading around 2 p.m. Everyone was cold and ready to return to civilization. Everyone, that is, except Pettersson.

“When’s the next time I’ll be able to skate at the top of the mountains?” he quipped.

As the day wrapped up and the helicopters prepared to take off, Edler vowed to Friesen that they would have to do this again soon. But next time, Edler said, they will bring a barbecue and a cooler full of beers.

But the beers and burgers will have to wait. Later that night, the province of British Columbia enacted new public gathering restrictions, as coronavirus cases in the region have surged in recent weeks. Regardless, Pettersson found a silver lining.

“If the season was going on, I probably wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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