Bozeman’s An Unrivaled Outdoor Hockey Rink

Thomas Austin  |   Wednesday Mar. 1st, 2023

The afternoon sun beams, but it’s too cold to feel any warmth. Your breath billows out like smoke. Behind you, rocky peaks rise from the valley floor. Snow and ice sparkle beneath your feet.

A harsh noise — something like ripping paper — splits the winter air as the defenseman carves a turn. You pivot and pick up speed, calling out to your teammate for a pass. The defenseman flicks his wrists and the puck skitters toward you. When you receive the pass, the puck hitting your stick blade reports like a rifle shot. You take a couple of hard strides and you’re flying up the ice, the frigid air rushing past.

An opposing player races to confront you. Just as he arrives, you pull the puck from right to left and it slides unharmed between his feet. With only one defender left to beat, you look toward the goal, fake a shot, and pass the puck behind the defender to your open teammate on the left wing. In one motion, she pivots to face the oncoming puck and fires it across the ice and into the wooden goal. Your team whoops with joy. Nobody is keeping score, but a goal is always worth celebrating.

My obsession with outdoor ice began in earnest on the day before my eighth birthday. My mom, dad, sister, and I piled into our minivan and left our house in Oakland for San Jose. We watched the San Jose Sharks play in hockey’s grandest, least outdoor setting that night — a climate-controlled arena with artificial ice and 17,000 roaring fans. We slept in a hotel after the game and left early the next morning for the mountains.

The scene that greeted us at daybreak was a product of unusual weather conspiring to create the grandest hockey rink in all creation. Tenaya Lake, nestled in a granite bowl within Yosemite National Park, is a remnant of glacial movement — a mere puddle left behind by a giant mobile wall of ancient ice. Usually, the lake is inaccessible by late fall due to heavy snow, but this winter had been cold and dry. In the second week of January, the lake had frozen solid without a flake of snow to be found. The skating surface rivaled any indoor ice I have played on before or since. When the sun sank behind the mountains, the granite walls bathed in the orange glow.

My father grew up in Newfoundland, eastern Canada. Hockey is more akin to a religion there than a recreational activity and the landscape is littered with ponds and lakes. Canada is a pond hockey paradise and, as a child, I dreamed of living in such a paradise, skating and passing and shooting all winter long while the winter sun shimmered. Years later, I moved to Bozeman because of its reputation as trout fishing mecca, and — though it certainly lives up to that reputation — I found myself in an outdoor hockey wonderland every bit as magical as the descriptions of my father’s Canadian rinks.

Bozeman is not hockey-obsessed like Canada, but Montana hockey culture is strong, and the outdoor rinks grow more populated every year. Unlike rivers and trails, outdoor rinks are a setting where crowds are welcomed. More hockey players mean more teammates, more fun, and more hockey. 

Within Bozeman city limits, outdoor hockey opportunity abounds. The most impressive outdoor rink in Bozeman from a hockey perspective is the covered, NHL-sized sheet at Bogert Park. The rink is enclosed by proper boards and used to host Bozeman’s entire organized hockey scene. The city has since built a beautiful, two-sheet indoor facility at the Fairgrounds, and Bogert hosts the most competitive outdoor hockey in town. The boards and roof at Bogert make for an ideal playing surface, but the rink lacks the open-air feel of Bozeman’s less formal hockey rinks.

Southside Park

At the corner of College Street and 5th avenue, Southside Park hosts Bozeman’s most welcoming outdoor hockey scene. A grassy field in the warmer months, Southside becomes a generous skating surface maintained by the city during the winter. There is always plenty of room to skate, and those looking to try ice skating for the first time will find Southside an ideal venue. Above the larger surface, the park’s tennis courts host a fenced-in arena for those in search of faster-paced pickup hockey.

Throughout my time as a college student in Bozeman, I’ve spent many evenings on the frozen Southside tennis courts. On many occasions, I’ve lost track of time, staying on the ice far longer than I intended, skating under the lights and gently falling snow, knowing that there was nowhere else I’d rather be. 

Skating is an act that frees the human body from its typical slow gait. Humans are built to walk and jog, and our top sprinting speeds pale in comparison to many wild creatures (and even some of our pets). Attaching a thin blade to the bottom of a shoe and gliding on frozen water is an effective, if strange, method of escape from the friction that usually keeps us slow and steady. But the joy, the pure ecstasy of sprinting across a frozen surface is what brings pond hockey faithful back for more.

Jack Kleist, a Bozeman resident and lifelong hockey player, grew up skating on the frozen ponds of Wisconsin and Minnesota. “The feeling of playing hockey outside is one of the coolest experiences anyone can really have,” Kleist says. Since moving to Bozeman, he’s enjoyed skating in the shadows of mountains. “Montana has some of the neatest places you can possibly strap on the skates.” Kleist’s favorite place to skate in Bozeman is Cattail Lake, which includes a cleared, well maintained oval, along with a handful of small pond hockey rinks. The Bridgers rise in the background and the view at sunset rarely disappoints.

Bozeman’s status as a ski town is in no danger, but taking a break from the slopes to enjoy a game of pond hockey is a perfect way to spend a winter weekend.

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