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Ice in Their Veins

Behind the scenes with the Billings Bulls

For most Billings residents, January marks the end of our patience with the cold. We rush to our cars, hot cocoa in hand; we slip on the ice, hot cocoa all over. With the holidays in the rearview mirror and three months of winter facing us through our frosty windshields, it’s hard not to feel a little hostility toward the elements. Unless the cold is your element.

Enter Clint Isakson, Jason Coleman, and Ansgar Brockelmann.

While their fellow student-athletes shoot hoops in heated gyms and swim laps in indoor pools, these members of the Billings Bulls high school hockey team strap on their gloves, tie up their skates, and embrace the ice at Centennial Arena.

Clint Isakson practically grew up at Centennial. His dad first introduced him to hockey when he was four years old—and though school, baseball, and a busy social calendar sometimes draw him away, his mind is never far from the rink. A sophomore forward for the Bulls, Isakson is turning heads early in his high school career with his puck-handling skills and speed. “I’m trying to improve my thought process and my shot this year,” he says. “I want to make the correct plays, be a better teammate, and produce more points.”

Helping him produce these points is fellow sophomore Ansgar Brockelmann, a German exchange student who plays center on the team. A hockey center acts like a point guard in basketball or a center-mid in soccer. They dictate the speed of the game, and most passing and scoring opportunities flow through their split-second decision-making. “I’m not really scoring goals that much,” he explains, “but I’m pretty good at getting the puck out of the defensive zone and finding an open man. I still need to get better at the physical game, because I’m a little below the level here. In Germany, it’s not that rough.”

Jason Coleman knows more than a little about the intense physicality of Montana hockey. A senior defender, Coleman is a pillar of the Bulls’ solid defense, and he’s never been one to back away from a collision. “We definitely do more hitting than other teams,” he says. “Which is funny, because our average height is a few inches below every other team.” While their aggressive playing style is sometimes necessary—and always fun to watch—Coleman adds that it sometimes gets them into penalty trouble, so he’s working on cleaning up his game. As for any unique skills he brings to the team, Coleman wastes no time mentioning, “I’m pretty good at beating Brockelmann one-on-one.”

“That’s tough, that’s tough… That’s true,” Brockelmann responds with a laugh. In Düsseldorf, his hometown in Germany, hockey enjoys the same popularity it does in Billings—which is to say: not very much. While the hockey communities in both cities are vibrant, full of impassioned fans and players, the sport remains largely underappreciated by the general public, and teams face a difficult time fundraising, keeping venues alive, and recruiting players. Here in Billings, plans to create a minor league professional team called the Blizzard fell through last year. And this year, the Bulls only have enough players for a varsity team, with no JV option.

“I’d love to see hockey grow here in the future,” Isakson says, “because I really do think it’s the best sport. It’s a hard one to get into when you’re older, so we have to start kids at a younger age.” Not only does the lack of a JV team demonstrate a need for more community engagement, but it also presents an extra challenge for Isakson and his teammates. “We have to come together as one team and understand some of these people won’t get to play as much as others, and just be supportive of each other,” he says.

“You have to learn to get along with each other,” Coleman agrees. The current Bulls roster features ninth through twelfth graders from all local high schools. Coleman and Brockelmann attend Billings Central, while Isakson attends Lockwood High. Playing for the Bulls gives each athlete a unique opportunity to meet kids from different schools and backgrounds with different playing styles and perspectives. United by love for the sport and the drive to succeed, new rosters come together every year and bond over tough practices, carb-heavy team dinners, and thousands of travel miles.

The result? An electric display of teamwork and skill at every match, and a fan environment like no other.

“We try our hardest every game,” Isakson says. “And we’ll continue to get better throughout the season. We’ll see how fast we can progress, but if we keep moving the way we have been, we’ll definitely have a shot at State.”

The Bulls’ 2022-23 season runs from November through March and culminates with a state tournament up in frequently frigid Whitefish. The Montana winter temperatures have been a bit of a shock for Brockelmann, whose German hometown rarely receives snow. “Last year was the first time I could play hockey on a frozen lake,” he explains. “Before that, the lakes would never freeze. It just wasn’t cold enough.”

While Brockelmann has adapted to the Montana cold quickly enough, the local playing style has taken a longer adjustment period. “I realized the shots here are way better than the shots we take in Germany,” he says. “I try to watch my teammates and copy them to get better. You have sessions here where you can get on the rink and do whatever you want, so kids go on the ice and shoot around. In Germany, we don’t have those sessions.”

Coleman and Isakson grew up on a healthy diet of open-rink sessions and team practices at Centennial. Coleman’s dad coached both of them when they were younger, and the arena has served as a second home for both ever since. “I spend an hour in the gym, and then at least an hour and a half on the ice,” Isakson says, explaining his training schedule. Hockey figures prominently in his life off the ice, too. On the Lockwood pitcher’s mound, he relies on the resilient mentality he’s learned from the ice, battling back from adversity when he’s down in the count. “The sports go hand in hand,” he says.

Brockelmann also lives and breathes hockey, but he stresses the importance of not stressing when it comes to the sport. “You need to do it for fun,” he says. “If you think too much about it and pressure yourself, that’s not good. Not only for your playing, but also for your health. As long as you’re having fun and getting better, as long as you have hockey in your life, you can learn from that. Even if you’re just watching the NHL or playing hockey on the PlayStation, all the little things come together, and they help you on the ice.”

Brockelmann draws inspiration from watching his favorite NHL player, Leon Draisaitl, a fellow center and German native who plays for the Edmonton Oilers. Isakson, meanwhile, studies the speed of Nathan McKinnon, the elusive young center for the Colorado Avalanche. Coleman, too, enjoys watching the Avalanche—particularly the way their defense locks down against foes. “Every time I say my favorite team is the Avalanche, people say it’s because they won the Stanley Cup last year,” he complains, staring accusingly at Brockelmann. “But I liked them before that.”

On their path to the Montana state cup this winter, the Bulls will host six more home games—all at Centennial Arena, all must-see events. Their remaining home schedule is as follows:

  • January 7th at 7:00 pm (vs. Havre)
  • January 8th at 9:00 a.m. (vs. Havre)
  • February 18th at 11:00 a.m. (vs. Bozeman)
  • February 18th at 5:00 p.m. (vs. Bozeman)
  • March 4th at 4:00 p.m. (vs. Flathead)
  • March 5th at 8:00 a.m. (vs. Flathead)

Swing by the arena for some hard-hitting, smooth-skating action, and trade the bitter outdoor cold for the fiery atmosphere of a Billings Bulls hockey match (but still, bring a sweatshirt).

While the fans may get to rest after the Zambonis make one final sweep of the ice in March, for Coleman, Brockelmann, and Isakson, the hockey season doesn’t end. As Coleman looks ahead to life beyond graduation, he envisions the sport playing a central role, no matter where he ends up for college. Similarly, Brockelmann isn’t sure where he’ll land next year—his teammates in Düsseldorf miss him, but his teammates in Billings might not let him leave. Either way, he’ll continue improving his center skills and blending the best of both countries’ playing styles.

Isakson has a clearer idea. He’ll keep leading the Bulls’ offense through high school, and then, “I’ll hopefully get onto a good college team, get a scholarship. I’m looking to see how far I can go.” These words mirror Isakson’s advice for younger kids who are just getting into hockey—a group that he hopes will expand as the Bulls continue to make Billings proud. “Just go as far as you can,” he says. “Keep showing up. Keep working. Keep going.”

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