At the bottom of a deep gully, shaded by steep hillsides covered with evergreen trees, sits a Desert Southwest rarity.
The Los Alamos County Ice Rink is the state’s only refrigerated, NHL-regulation, outdoor sheet of ice.
Some two decades ago when the former New Mexico Scorpions were in their heyday, it provided the backdrop for an uncommon professional game in the outdoors.
And now the New Mexico Ice Wolves of the North American Hockey League will become one of the first in its league to do the same when they meet El Paso on Sunday to cap a weekend’s worth of events at the rink this being billed as the Los Alamos Winter Classic. It also will feature high school and youth hockey matches as well as youth clinics.
“It’s going to be a very exciting event up there,” Ice Wolves coach Phil Fox said. “For our guys, to play in an actual game, I think every kid dreams of having that opportunity at some point in their hockey career.”
The NHL has been playing limited outdoor games annually – usually in a large stadium somewhere in the north.
And some of the Ice Wolves who grew up places like Minnesota grew up playing pond hockey and even had a chance to play some high school puck on outdoors rinks.
But this will be just a bit different, said Jake Svenddal, who grew up in Minneapolis.
“Obviously, it’s a pretty special game,” he said. “It’s a cool experience but at the end of the day, it’s a regular season game and we need to get a win and play hard as a team. It’s our first time playing them this year, so it will be fun to see them in this environment.”
Defenseman Jeff Hutchinson, who grew up in St. Louis, said he expects it to be a cool experience in many ways, although he has never actually played in an outdoor game.
“It can be a little different because you can’t feel your hands and your toes,” said Hutchinson, who played in an Ice Wolves intersquad game in Los Alamos last season. “It gets very cold so you have to keep moving. You have to keep your fingers and toes moving.”
As a matter of fact, he said he was advised, players will often resort to using hand warmers and toe warmers to get through the game. And sometimes the setting can make it hard to concentrate, Hutchinson admitted.
“That was fun,” he said of last year’s scrimmage. “I haven’t really done something like that in a place like that. I found myself looking at the trees and looking at the scenery.”
That really shouldn’t be an issue this time around as the Rhinos (9-13, 18 points)are scrambling to get into a playoff contention and need a big win to jump-start that drive against the third-place Ice Wolves (13-7, 28 points before a scheduled Thursday night game). The two teams are in the South Division of the NAHL, a developmental league for players seeking collegiate and professional hockey opportunities.
“It’s been marked as the big outdoor game for us,” Hutchinson said, “But it is really another game against a big rival that we haven’t faced yet this year.”
One of the issues with outdoor games is the elements can change the way the ice reacts, which can change the game a bit, said forward Nikolai Dulak, who grew up in Willernie, Minnesota.
“If it gets a little warm, the ice experience changes overall,” he said. “You have to know, ‘I can’t go into this corner because the ice is melting.’ It’s a big game changer for the game. But my best advice is to not overthink and just play hockey. That’s all you can do. Go out there and do what you can do.”