In other parts of the country, outdoor hockey is not such a rarity. A group of kids can strap on their skates, grab their sticks and spend all day on the nearest pond practicing their best Wayne Gretzky moves.
Here in the Southwest, however, it’s almost mythical.
That’s what makes the Outdoor Nuclear Shootout in Los Alamos, running Friday, Jan. 11 through Sunday, Jan. 13 in Los Alamos, such an attractive draw as teams from the University of Nebraska, Northern Arizona and Dallas Baptist join the New Mexico Lobos, a club team at UNM, in what’s believed to be the first American Collegiate Hockey Association tournament held outdoors.
The scene for the weekend tourney should be fairly polar as Los Alamos got more than three feet of snow last week and much of it should stick around for a while, particularly in the rink’s canyon setting.
The Lobos played Dallas Baptist at the Los Alamos County Ice Rink last year and afterwards New Mexico coach Grant Harvey Jr. happened to run into the DPU team playing some pickup hockey at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center. They all got to talking. “They ended up being nice guys,” Harvey said. “They loved playing up there.”
Pretty soon, the idea of expanding the one-time event into a full weekend tournament was born.
“We flew it by a few people,” Harvey said. “Nebraska loved the idea. Dallas Baptist wanted to do it. And we offered it to NAU (Northern Arizona), our closest rivals and the ones we respect so much, and because we’ve been playing them for so long, we felt we owed them something.”
For Los Alamos native and Lobos forward Isaac Dunwoody, it’s a homecoming on ice.
“I’ve been playing here since I was about 4½,” he said. “It’s really nice to come back home and be able to play in front of the people I grew playing for.
“Being from a small northern New Mexico town, the heights of most players is going to be varsity hockey or maybe the state travel team. But to come back and play college hockey, and show everybody that there is more out there, that’s something.”
Set in a shady crevice, the rink is surrounded by wooded hills, which just adds to the appeal, Harvey said.
“It’s fun to coach with these pine trees reaching 30 feet or more,” he said. “It’s a neat perspective looking down on the ice.”
Lobos goaltender James Bostain, originally from Florida before moving to Rio Rancho while in high school and who played in last year’s outdoor game against Dallas Baptist, said Los Alamos is a special place to compete.
“When a lot of people think of New Mexico, they don’t think of outdoor hockey,” he said. “I think that was really neat. It brings awareness to the rest of the country and the league about New Mexico, that we have hockey here outdoors and we have the cold weather to keep up with it. It was neat and special to be a part of it and bring awareness to hockey in the Southwest.”
With games played in the mornings and evenings, temperatures are expected to be fairly brisk.
“For me personally, because I grew up in it, it helps me out,” Dunwoody said. “It makes me feel like I have a little super power and I use that to my advantage and hopefully put the hurt on someone else. There’s something about those 6 a.m. practices in -10 that toughens you up a little bit.”
Bostain said there’s not much you can do about it.
“I’m a Florida kid myself and even though I’ve been here about 10 years, I’m not really wired for this cold weather,” he said. “I’m going to be freezing to death Saturday morning.”
Still, Dunwoody has been telling the team’s newcomers that there’s nothing quite like it.
“A lot of the kids, even in New Mexico, haven’t played on an outdoor rink before,” he said. “It’s completely unreal. It’s definitely something that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience if you’ve never done it before.
“It kind of sucks for the first little bit because it’s freezing cold and it hurts to breathe, but once you get moving, it’s a rush. And those night games, playing under the stars is something else.”