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November 17, an hour before the puck is scheduled to drop, and a crowd has already formed outside of Breckenridge’s Stephen C. West Ice Arena. Inside, the home team’s staff rushes to finish setting up for the first game of the season. Ice skating lessons and youth leagues take precedence at the venue, so the Breckenridge Vipers, an independent outfit that plays in Senior A, amateur hockey’s highest level of competition, couldn’t access the arena until 5:30 p.m. That gave them only 90 minutes to hang sponsorship banners, place cameras for the YouTube livestream, and stock the bars (as the liquor license holder, the squad provides its own booze and bartenders). It feels like the first day of school after summer break: Concessions staff who haven’t seen one another in months hug and catch up while they try to figure out the Vipers’ new point-of-sale system.
As the founder, all-time leading goal scorer, captain, and director of the nonprofit club, Richard “Rick” Batenburg III is at the center of the Vipers’ controlled chaos. With his bright plaid sport coat and carefully coiffed hair, he’s easy to spot as he patrols the arena. Batenburg’s day started in the morning in Denver, where he picked up a company van with logos for Clear Cannabis—the crown jewel of Cliintel Capital, his family’s marijuana-focused venture capital firm—emblazoned across both sides. The 33-year-old’s first stop was a Costco Business Center to procure supplies for the concession stands, then he ate a ritual meal of chicken fingers for good luck before making the two-hour drive to Breckenridge.
“Home openers are always a disaster,” Batenburg says as he finally heads to the locker room. No matter what calamities are unfolding, Batenburg tries to be with his teammates 90 minutes before the game starts. Still, his administrative duties don’t really stop; he fields questions from his executive team as he laces up his skates and discusses game strategy with his father, Vipers coach Richard “Rich” Batenburg Jr.
The atmosphere inside the locker room is tense. Some players are amped—“Let’s f***ing go, boys!” someone yells—while others quietly stare into the middle distance. There’s uncertainty in the air. Tonight’s opponents, the Roughnecks from Rock Springs, Wyoming (population 23,000), are new to Senior A. About a month ago, at the Vipers’ fall camp, there were rumblings among the team that, being from an oil town, the Roughnecks might live up to their name and bully them.
Outside the locker room, fans are already trickling in and self-segregating by rowdiness. Families gravitate toward the left-hand bleachers while the twentysomething lifties, servers, ski school instructors, and townies head to the right. Everyone seems to know one another, and once the Vipers make their way to the rink for warmups, grade schoolers yell out players’ names. By the time the national anthem begins, roughly 400 people are in the stands with another couple of hundred either still waiting to get into the arena or in line for beer and cheap mixed drinks.
The event’s production value, much like the team itself, is both borderline professional and endearingly amateurish. The public address announcer’s baritone voice almost landed him the same gig with the Colorado Avalanche, for example, and a DJ blares crowd-hyping bangers like AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” during stoppages in play. The man singing the anthem once competed on The Voice. That same crooner, however, was just upstairs in the VIP room helping fix a finicky television that refused to broadcast the game’s livestream, which is being directed by a teenager with a laptop on a paint-flecked construction scaffold. One of the three concession stands is just a folding table in front of cheap coolers with broken lids, and the Zamboni driver will pull double duty as the scoreboard operator. He’ll be busy tonight.
“If you want to know how this all started, you’ve got to go back to the Sun Valley Suns,” says Bob Carruth, owner of and former goalie for the Jackson Hole Moose, another Senior A team. The Suns were founded in 1975, when a group of five local amateur hockey players decided to organize friendly pickup games at the Idaho town’s new arena. Within a few years, the team was attracting 1,400-person crowds as well as talented players, including former college athletes and ex-NHLers, who wanted to continue competing at a high level. Over the next four decades, the Suns went on tours to Japan and Europe and squared off in exhibitions with the U.S., Chinese, Russian, and Japanese national teams.
As with most businesses, the Suns owe much of their success to their location. Sun Valley is home to a world-class ski resort, and the Suns have long paid to house visiting teams from Canada, the Midwest, and the Northeast so their players could enjoy a subsidized ski vacation. In exchange, Sun Valley gets matches that the team can sell tickets against. Over the decades, the business model the Suns pioneered spread to more Western towns, including McCall, Idaho; Bozeman, Montana; and Park City, Utah. Like the Suns, none of those teams pay their players, but the athletes receive plenty of other benefits. “They don’t want for anything hockeywise,” Carruth says, “and they don’t pay a dime when they travel for away games.” At home, most teams also help their players find affordable housing and jobs to pay their bills.
Batenburg was familiar with this brand of small-town hockey. After spending almost every day on the ice since he was three years old, he delayed college until he was 21 so he could play in Canada’s junior hockey leagues—a highly competitive developmental system for 16- to 21-year-olds, which, at its highest levels, is considered semipro. The Loveland native spent three years bouncing between cities such as Vancouver, British Columbia, and Campbellton, New Brunswick, whose junior team routinely sells out the local 3,500-seat arena despite playing in a town with a population of around 7,000. “In the middle of nowhere,” Batenburg says, “there’s nothing else to do but drink cheap beer and watch hockey fights.”
After aging out of junior hockey, Batenburg enrolled at Nichols College, a small, business-focused school in Dudley, Massachusetts, where he played for the Division III Bison. Like many college athletes, he faced a decision following graduation in 2014: Try to compete in his sport’s lower levels or get a real job. “I chose to sell my soul,” Batenburg says. He returned home to the Denver area and worked as a broker at Merrill for about a year before launching Cliintel Capital with his father.
Although Batenburg had grown up playing hockey in the West, he didn’t know there was anything comparable to Canada’s small-town hockey scene in the United States. Then, the same year he returned to Colorado, a friend who played in Denver’s beer leagues invited him to join a game against the Vail Yeti, then the only Senior A hockey team in Colorado. Batenburg still gets goose bumps thinking about the 2,000 fans who packed Vail’s Dobson Ice Arena that night. After the match, he called the Yeti’s owner to ask if he could put together his own exhibition team for a game. “I was nervous,” Batenburg says. “Knowing what I know now, though, of course he was like, ‘Hell, yeah!’ ”
What Batenburg knows now are the economics of running a Senior A club. Teams’ lodgings on road trips are usually covered by their hosts, but other expenses, such as gas or plane tickets, aren’t. Moreover, owners don’t generate any money when they travel; the home team gets the entirety of the ticket sales—which, in reality, isn’t all that much. Typical Senior A venues hold anywhere from 500 to 2,000 fans, so even a sellout isn’t a windfall. (Vipers’ general admission tickets run $22.) All of this boils down to one fact, says Batenburg: Clubs have to play at least two-thirds of their schedules on home ice just to break even. So the trick is convincing other teams to visit you. When Batenburg reached out to the Yeti about scheduling a match, he was in effect giving the team free money.
After the jerseys Batenburg ordered didn’t arrive in time for the game against the Yeti, his ad hoc team donned neon beer league sweaters with the name Pink Tacos on the front. Nevertheless, Batenburg’s crew won in overtime. “It was a heck of a way to kick-start a rivalry,” Batenburg says. Almost immediately, he started looking for an arena that could host a permanent team, one he would both manage and play for. “I knew I needed a contained market,” he says. “You don’t want to compete with the Avalanche for attention.” So despite living in Denver, he searched for a small-town facility with around a 1,000-person capacity. “Even if we had a rink that held 4,000 people, it would be too big. It would feel empty,” he says. “Breckenridge had the right kind of mix of things, and having played in so many little towns across Canada, I knew what I was looking for.”
Only 37 people turned up to watch the Vipers’ first game in 2015. “For years, it was a good place to light money on fire,” says Batenburg, who estimates it costs between $14,000 and $18,000 to host a two-game weekend series. Much of the nonprofit team’s early funding came from Batenburg and his family’s business ventures through sponsorships; it would take nearly four years for the team to ink its first outside backing, a $10,000 check from Kaiser Permanente. “You have to have three years of runway or you’re not going to make it,” Batenburg says, because it takes that long to get buy-in from fans, sponsors, and the arena managers who decide who receives the prime time slots. For their first few seasons, the Vipers’ home games started at 10 p.m.
In 1992, a bunch of (fictional) kids from the wrong side of Minneapolis came together under the leadership of disgraced attorney Gordon Bombay to improbably win their district’s Pee Wee hockey championship. The Mighty Ducks’ box office success proved indicative of things to come for the (nonfictional) sport of hockey during the following decade, when the NHL added seven expansion franchises, including the then Disney-owned Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and saw its revenue triple. With new teams spreading across the country, more players were inspired to take up the game: USA Hockey, the sport’s governing body, reports its membership grew 143 percent from 1990 to 2010. In Colorado, which landed the relocated Avalanche in 1995, membership skyrocketed 250 percent over the same period.
By the 2010s, the children who had first donned skates and picked up sticks during the ’90s boom hit their mid-20s. Like Batenburg, many had spent their adolescences and early adulthoods playing competitive club and college hockey. Then, suddenly, they found themselves without an outlet. “I think the culture in hockey is something that’s super special,” says Yeti owner Kyle Forte. “Just as much as the competition that players don’t want to give up, it’s that sense of family and community that you get when you’re part of a team.” Like in other sports, there are adult leagues hockey players can join, but they don’t offer the atmosphere of small-town Senior A in the West, which is often, literally, the only game in town. “There’s nothing else to do,” Carruth says. “If you try to do this in Denver, you’d have 30 people show up, and [they would] all be girlfriends and wives and moms and dads.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Senior A has witnessed its own boom in recent years. For decades, the Suns were the only such squad in the West; they were later joined by the Jackson Hole Moose in 1997. But since 2010, at least a dozen clubs, including the Yeti in 2013, have formed across Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and California. As the number of teams has increased, the budgets of many clubs have grown, too, as owners seek to deliver a better product and, thus, sell more tickets. The Vipers’ current annual operating budget, for example, is around $225,000, which is about how much they make yearly in ticket sales, concessions, and sponsorships from local companies such as the Ramada in Frisco and Vail-Summit Orthopaedics and Neurosurgery. Roughly $100,000 of that, however, comes in the form of trade, such as beer from New Belgium Brewing to stock concessions in exchange for the company’s logo appearing on the Vipers’ jerseys.
The increase in Senior A teams in the region has another benefit: more local competition. Instead of having to exclusively ship in opponents from as far away as New York City, the Suns now fill out at least a portion of their schedule with squads from just a state or two away. The Vipers’ 22-game schedule this season features just two opponents from outside the West: the New York City fire and police department hockey clubs. This not only lessens the financial burden of playing away games, but it also fosters rivalries because, as the saying goes, proximity breeds contempt. “In every mountain town, just like everywhere else, the people are passionate about where they live,” says Forte, whose team will play the Vipers six times this season. “So Breckenridge is some of our biggest games all year. When we go to Breck, their house is always packed. It’s fun. It’s electric, and then the same thing happens when they come here.”
Garret Bailey, a do-it-all forward and starter for the Vipers, remembers the team’s early years, when sometimes only a dozen or so fans would pay to watch them play. The Michigan native didn’t even know Senior A squads existed until after he moved to Breckenridge in 2017 and was scouted by the Vipers’ then general manager in a Summit County men’s league. During his time with the club, Bailey has improved from a midlevel player on the team to one of the best Senior A performers in the West. “To see players in the twilight of their careers not just keep playing but develop and get better is so cool,” Batenburg says.
Currently, Bailey works on the bottling line at Breckenridge Distillery, but he’s had a variety of jobs around the region, including delivering bottled oxygen to tourists suffering from elevation sickness—the same tourists who are slowly pushing locals like him out. In fact, after his rental house was sold, Bailey had to move out of Breckenridge proper to the nearby town of Blue River. He’ll likely never be able to afford to own a home in Summit County, he says, but at least he gets to play hockey in front of hundreds of screaming fans. “That’s this life, I guess,” Bailey says. “I don’t know what I would be doing if I hadn’t found this team.”
Bailey isn’t the only player who has been affected by the housing crisis in mountain towns. In fact, Carruth worries that within a decade, Jackson Hole’s unaffordability may mean that the twenty- and thirtysomething players that he needs to field a competitive team may no longer be able to live there. “I’m 60, so I’ll be done by then,” Carruth says, “but we have a great program here. I want to see it survive.” Both Carruth and Batenburg have seen their respective towns create additional affordable employee housing, but the problem only seems to be getting worse. Either way, Carruth says clubs such as the Vipers and the Reno Ice Raiders are in a better position than teams in more remote mountain towns for one reason: They have a nearby metropolis from which they can source new players.
Rick Batenburg didn’t like what he saw. It was a month before opening night against the Roughnecks, and the Vipers were hosting fall camp in Breckenridge. About 30 players—some Vipers vets, others hopefuls trying to skate their ways onto the squad—were running through drills.
Four groups passed pucks among themselves, with one player ultimately sending a shot toward the waiting goalie. Or at least that’s how it was supposed to go. The Vipers prefer precise passes and puck control to a crash-and-bash style of play, but things had been so sloppy that morning that Batenburg finally stopped play mid-drill. He skated to center ice and ran the players through the exercise again, cracking his stick against the ice and uttering expletives to underscore what he wanted to see. When practice resumed, the passes were crisper, faster.
“If you don’t implement those expectations from the jump, you’re never going to get there,” Batenburg says. Despite not paying his players, Batenburg expects them to behave like professionals, including attending five to six practices each week and arriving two hours before games, a challenge for the Denver-based players who often have to sneak out of work early and battle Friday ski traffic to make it to Breckenridge on time. According to Bailey, some players don’t want to join the team because of Batenburg’s high expectations and occasionally overbearing personality. “Some people just can’t take being told what to do,” he says. “Sometimes they feel that it’s an attack on them.”
The Batenburgs are no strangers to conflict, though. Cliintel Capital, the venture capital firm of which Rich is CEO and Rick is chief investment officer, boasts a $125 million portfolio that includes Bonsai Cultivation, a recreational cannabis wholesaler; Intigo, a 3D-printing startup; and Pharmajet, a needle-free pharmaceutical delivery system. But its biggest brand is Clear Cannabis, a THC- and CBD-concentrates producer. The Batenburgs previously owned Clear Cannabis with Justin Pentelute, a partner in the Batenburgs’ Batmann Consulting, Clear’s former parent company. In February 2019, the Batenburgs agreed to buy Pentelute out, but later that year, he sued Rich and some of the Batenburgs’ businesses for allegedly finagling assets in order to shirk their agreed-upon payments. A judge awarded Pentelute $12.3 million in April 2023, though the Batenburgs are appealing the ruling. (The younger Batenburg was dropped from the suit and says he is confident his family will win the appeal. He declined to comment further, citing a nondisparagement agreement.)
Despite the difficulties the venture capital world presents, the experience has given Batenburg an eye for opportunity. This season, he’s trying to take advantage of what he sees as an opening in the Senior A market by launching the Mountain Hockey League (MHL). At the heart of the new association is Batenburg’s belief that exhibition-only schedules hold Senior A teams back because there’s nothing at stake, no Stanley Cup of their own to pine for. That affects ticket sales, especially when the home team welcomes a visitor it’s sure to dominate. But give a squad (and its fans) something to strive for—which in the case of this year’s inaugural MHL season is the Clear Cup, a championship game sponsored by Clear Cannabis—and suddenly every contest matters.
Batenburg acknowledges that Senior A squads on the whole don’t need the MHL—established teams are mostly doing fine—but ever the venture capitalist, he thinks they could be doing much better. Even if the league runs at a loss, more competition could lead to higher ticket sales, which, in turn, could mean more money for participating teams for gear, road trips, and game day productions.
Legitimizing Senior A hockey in the West isn’t as simple as sponsoring a championship game, though. As the league’s commissioner, Batenburg has implemented, among other rules and regulations, standards for safety protocols he adopted with the MHL’s head of officiating, a member of the rulemaking committee for USA Hockey. That includes issuing a one-game suspension to a player for an illegal hit to the head, a level of accountability these independent amateur teams have never had.
Some of the older Senior A teams in the West are wary of the MHL. Plenty of regional Senior A leagues have launched and failed over the years, says the Moose’s Carruth, in large part because they became a financial burden for their teams by requiring them to play a certain number of costly away games against fellow league members. But Batenburg has set up the MHL differently: Clubs pay nothing to join, and instead of mandating participants compete against each other, the MHL awards points for wins, whether they’re against league members or exhibition opponents. The only obligation is that each club plays 18 games against teams that the league’s owners collectively decide are worthy competition. Then, the top two MHL clubs will play a championship match in late spring at the number one seed’s home rink. Despite those concessions, both the Suns and the Moose did not join the 10-member MHL, meaning Batenburg’s league began in November without two of the most storied teams in the West.
At first, it seems like the Roughnecks might be an even match for the Vipers: Five minutes into the first period, the scoreboard reads two to one in favor of the home team. Then Vipers goals start pouring in.
Rock Springs can’t keep up with Breckenridge’s pinpoint passing, and the elevation isn’t helping—at 9,688 feet, Stephen C. West Ice Arena is the highest rink in the United States and sits 3,288 feet higher than the Roughnecks’ home ice. It’s like watching the Alabama Crimson Tide football team play a DII opponent. Still, the crowd loves it. The lifties emit a constant stream of heckling, spilling beer and pounding on the glass so hard that the security team has to fight through the crowd to tell them to tone it down. At the other end of the bleachers, kids do the same, only with Capri-Suns in their hands instead of IPAs.
After the first period, the score is already 5-1. Bailey, the do-it-all forward who lives in Summit County, sits with his teammates in the locker room. Despite the ruckus around him, he’s calm. When asked how many goals the Vipers might score tonight, he takes a moment, as if he’s playing out the rest of the match in his head. He finally arrives at a number: 12.
Batenburg stopped trying to score before the first period was over (blowouts are usually bad for business, and he knows that tomorrow’s crowd will likely be half the size of tonight’s), but the team’s owner can only suppress his competitive drive so much. Over the past few years, Batenburg has been so focused on building the family business and running the Vipers that he wasn’t on the ice as much as he wanted. “When I don’t skate, I get in a funk,” he says. “It’s such a slow decline that you don’t really notice it.” Recently, he’s been trying to spend more time on the ice. Not only has his play improved, but his mental health has rebounded, too. “This year, it’s as if there’s been a renewal in me,” he says. He ends the game against the Roughnecks with nine assists in a 17-1 Vipers win.
Despite the score, the crowd barely thins before the final whistle. Fans line the Vipers’ route back to the locker room to congratulate the players. But the community’s support, as welcome as it is, is just a bonus. At one point, many of the Vipers had stopped competing only to later realize they’d given up one of the most important things in their lives. “For decades, we all had the trust and companionship and closeness of a team that’s battling together,” Batenburg says, “and then one day that was gone.” Now, they have it back.