Beginner Hockey League Boasts a Tightly Knit Community

Christopher Dyrland-Marquis

The sound of clacking hockey sticks echoed through the evening’s misty air at Ressler Ice Rink as two opposing players fought for a puck amongst excited cheers. One—garbed in yellow—attempted to outmaneuver his blue-jerseyed rival: clacking and sliding his hockey stick against equally vicious blows in attempts to maintain control over his adversary. But both fought just as hard as the other, and for a few heart-stopping seconds neither held an upper hand. Suddenly, from a single moment of imbalance, the hockey puck slid underneath the yellow combatant’s skates, and flew towards his goal—swiftly cradled and maneuvered by the blurred flash of a second, previously unseen blue teammate who had snagged it in passing. Powdered ice spewed into the air from his swift skating as he dashed ahead of both teams, rocketed towards his opponent’s goal, and deftly sent the puck inside with a sharp thwack. Audience members on the edge of their seat erupted into applause at the stunning display, and reveled in the competitive atmosphere that had shattered my own preconceptions about what a Greenhorn Beginner League Hockey Game might have to offer.

For most, the thought of entering into recreational sports as an adult can seem a bit bizarre. Sure, there are intramural sports for college students to participate in, but beyond opportunities for those in secondary education, the prospect of joining together with others in a league can seem a bit intimidating. I mean, who wouldn’t be at least a little nervous? There are certainly enough unknowns: you could have no idea who you might play against, you might not know if you would be considered good enough, or you simply may not even know where to look. While these concerns can all be perfectly valid, Bozeman is finding itself in an interesting position: quickly developing as a hotspot for numerous recreational leagues, with many beginner-friendly organizations among them. One of these—Bozeman Amateur Hockey Association’s Greenhorn Beginner Adult League—works to provide a space for anyone over 18 to learn hockey, and to help train them to compete with others.

My own research into the organization led me to attend one of the league’s many scheduled skirmishes: a Monday-night pickup match between the yellow-jerseyed Hackers, and their blue counterparts, the Slashers. Knowing very little about the event (I didn’t even know if it was open to the public or not), I decided to take along my dear, ever-patient girlfriend, and find out! We departed for the Haynes Pavilion in the Gallatin County Fairgrounds around 8:15 pm, and after meandering our way into Ressler Ice Rink, wondered at first if we had missed it: a nearly empty set of bleachers sat behind plexiglass, as coaches skated across the ice with an assortment of players—all of which enthusiastically performing various ice-skating exercises up and down the enclosure. Every now and then, a player would catch his blades against the ice and fall, but it was clear the group had been practicing, and those who slipped immediately jumped back into their exercise. Finally, it dawned on us that we had mis-read the schedule, and had been spectating a practice session! The game we decided to attend wasn’t set to play for an hour. With our embarrassing mistake swiftly dawning upon us, we made as graceful of an exit as we could, and promised ourselves to return at the proper time.

One hour and several self-deprecating jokes later, the two of us returned to be greeted by a somewhat different atmosphere: seating which had been suspiciously empty before, now held excitable friends and family who had come to cheer their players on! It also appeared that everyone in the audience had somebody to root for. Before the night’s match began, Lindy Soukdavong—a fellow spectator—was gracious enough to provide me with insight into her own attendance. She explained, “My boyfriend is on the Greenhorn [Hackers] team … I think their jerseys are yellow, but they haven’t started yet. This is the big practice before, this is a whole different team … a whole different practice.” She continued by discussing whether or not she might like to see the league become more popular, replying, “Yeah, that would be cool if it’s not already! It seems like there’s a good amount of people [here] … I’ve watched hockey forever. The very first NHL game I went to was a playoff game for the Calgary Flames!”

Soon, the main event had arrived, and as the Hackers and Slashers began their vigorous pregame warm-ups, many bystanders (including myself) paid a visit to the stadium’s concession stand for a full spectator experience—returning to the frigid spectating benches with warm cocoa to soothe our hands, or cold, adult beverages to raise the spirits. In the moments before the game started, it was clear that we would enjoy an open and welcoming community. On each face—audience member and player—a wide, grinning smile shone out. While the competition was taken seriously, it was apparent that everyone in attendance was thoroughly basking in the wholesome joy that stems from enjoying each others’ company. Then, in what seemed to be the blink of an eye, the teams came together, the game’s designated referee dropped the game’s puck, and the event began.

As the hockey game progressed, it was hard to believe that the teams who competed in front of us were beginners in the sport. While an occasional fall or unintended turn across the ice did occur every now and then, the passion each player brought into their performance convinced anyone watching that their competitive spirit rivaled the pros. The hockey puck flew between fellow sticks, as fast-paced plays would be cast across the rink, and each team took turns countering aggressive offenses with cunning misdirections and point-saving goalies if it proved necessary.

Each team appeared to have its own star players emerge, as several Hackers found themselves gaining traction against the blue Slashers, and vice versa. When a Hacker might win the puck possession from a face-off circle near his opponent’s goal, it would be quickly reversed by the equally passionate team, who would run it down the ice, and attempt to shoot it past the vigilant goalie. Throughout the match, several shots from each team evaded his defense, and if you missed it there was no need to worry: you would quickly be reminded by enthusiastic chanting and the clanging of painted cowbells shaken by spirited fans! For about three-quarters of the game, it appeared to be a solid standstill—no team appeared to be outplaying the other, and many may not have even felt it necessary to tally the points, as the scoreboard displayed only the current time. With as much fun as the entire ensemble seemed to be having, the minimal display could simply have been reminding observers of the remaining time they had to enjoy their skirmish before yielding to others’ scheduled reservations.

Eventually, however, tides did appear to change in the blue Slashers’ favor. The team’s competitive edge and persistence paid off, with a player driving the puck towards his opponents in the game’s final moments. He ran it towards the Hackers’ left-center field, clashed with a Hacker guarding the zone, juked him with a quick succession of slapping movements (some of which still feel magical to recall), and shot the puck into the Hackers’ goal! Soon after, the game ended—with an apparent victory for the Slashers, though it was hard to tell, as everyone who began filing outside of the stadium boasted ear-to-ear grins. The family and friends of players skating off of the ice lingered to excitedly discuss the game with their loved ones, and even when I asked a yellow-jerseyed Hacker—a member of the team who had supposedly lost the match—what team he had played for, his chest swelled with pride and he jovially responded, “The Hackers!”

As we departed and regaled ourselves with the immensely entertaining events that had unfolded before us that night, my girlfriend and I found ourselves reverently in awe of the Greenhorn League’s atmosphere. Everyone who played did so as someone with a genuine love of the sport, and with a desire to try their hand at a new experience. Regardless of how well they thought to have played, or how well others thought they had performed, it didn’t matter. Those who stepped out onto the ice did so to participate in an activity that drew the community together, regardless of if they happened to win one hockey game or not. With my loved one dragging a brand-new, raving hockey fan out of the door, we walked into the cold night’s open air appreciating how much we, ourselves, might enjoy participating in community programs like the Bozeman Amateur Hockey Association: commitments that stem from an ongoing desire to improve our abilities, engage with the friends we make every day and discover activities worth forming supportive communities over.

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