It's a sun-kissed Saturday afternoon on the banks of Seeley Lake behind Lindey's Steakhouse, and there are more than 150 hockey bags strewn about the snow. Nancy-Clair Laird's is the only one with a baggage claim ticket from Georgia.
Laird considers it a long-standing personal fantasy to play in a pond hockey tournament. She grew up figure skating down south, but discovered hockey during college in New York. Last August, she moved back to Georgia after eight years of bruises and bulky skates in Bozeman. Now she's on the sidelines of the Seeley Lake Pond Hockey Tournament swigging beer with old friends and trying to forget this morning's defeat.
This is the third consecutive year Mike Lindemer and Tom Monaghan have organized a pond hockey competition for the first weekend of the new yearnormally a tourism slump for Seeley. What started with 11 teams in 2011 is now a three-rink, 30-team affair complete with upper and lower divisions. The event proved so popular this year that Lindemer had to turn away 20 additional teams. Players have come from across Montana, eastern Oregon, Canada and, in Laird's case, Georgia. This year, proceeds from the event go to Seeley Lake Elementary and the Missoula Area Youth Hockey league.
"The only feedback we've received this year is to try and have another rink for kids to play on, which we were able to do last year," Monaghan says. "But where we're standing now was mush a week ago, so it wasn't an option."
Laird's teammates rib her between games, and one wisecrack hits a soft spot: Laird was a debutante, meaning when she was eligible for marriage, she wasdebuted at an old-fashioned, high-society ball.
"It's true," Laird says, blushing. "I was a debutante. You get a dress on, there's music, your dad walks you down the aisle...I'm not afraid to admit it now. I'm not ashamed anymore."
Any thoughts of Laird in white gloves immediately vanish when she hits the ice. She's the first on the Bozeman Pond Scum team to score. She's also the first to send an opponent sprawling across the rink. If there was a penalty box in pond hockey, odds are she'd be in it.
The Pond Scum eventually stumble away from the rink victorious. They're battered, fatigued, one-for-one on the day. But Laird's grinning. "It's a dream come true," she says, and she doesn't even remember the score.