A history of Big Sky’s ice-smoothing machine

By Ryan Blechta
As told to EBS Senior Editor Tyler Allen

The Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association was born in March 2009 when Big Sky Town Center Project Manager Ryan Hamilton held a meeting to gauge community interest in hockey and skating. More than 30 people attended and it was obvious Big Sky skaters were ready for a hockey-sized rink.

In 2011, the group acquired a more than 30-year-old Zamboni, and Ryan Blechta began his ice-resurfacing career in earnest.

Jason Martel used to own the Gallatin Valley Ice Garden, and when he sold the Garden he gave his main Zamboni to Bozeman’s Haynes Pavilion, and donated his backup to us. It was just sitting outside in his lumberyard at the time, and it was pretty beat up.

Zambonis run on propane and not a lot of mechanics know how to work on them. However, we were able to find a mechanic who got it going in March 2011 then took it to Blasting Technologies to sandblast the whole thing – it was pretty rusty. SCS Wraps covered it in a Bozeman Ice Dogs decal, since Martel owned the team at the time.

I rented an Elevation 6000 condo in Town Center, and when the Zamboni arrived in Big Sky in November 2011, I kept it in the garage.

The first year we only used it for shaving the ice – you don’t want to use cold water for resurfacing since hot water binds with the ice much quicker. We’d go out there with cold water from the fire hoses and then shave it with the Zamboni blade.

It worked like a dream. The first time we cut the ice it was amazing how smooth it was.

Typical rinks have a boiler to heat the water, but without that luxury I got a Rinnai hot water machine on a portable cart from Justin Hussey of Big Sky’s Hussey Plumbing – it heats your water to 140 F – and I’d wheel the water heater outside and run the hose under the garage door. It would heat 1-2 gallons per minute, and take more than an hour to fill the Zamboni.

Then I’d hop on the machine, get on Aspen Leaf Drive and drive it three minutes over to the rink – I did that for two winters.

I made a bunch of modifications on it but it’s a very old machine and hard to find parts, so I called the Zamboni factory in Paramount, Calif., gave them specs and sent them photos. They said, “That thing is still running?”

They think it was built between 1976 and ‘78 but they still had parts for it – I couldn’t believe it. The dynamics of how a Zamboni works haven’t changed much over the decades.

I needed to get it in a shop after the first season, but it’s really awkward to get on a trailer since it’s so low to the ground. I was working as an assistant golf course superintendent at the Yellowstone Club and had a pretty big shop up there – I thought, “Screw it. I’m going to drive it up there.”

So I woke up at 4 a.m., put on my headlamp and drove it up South Fork Road. It took me three and a half hours. The machine weighs 14,000 pounds and only goes 4 mph uphill – I didn’t factor that in, but was only passed by one car on my way up there.

I’ve frozen it a few times before but once you get it warm again it runs great. I’ve also run out of propane – once in the middle of the rink and I had to tow it off with my truck.

Last year we were able to get a bunch of volunteers to build a heated shed for the Zamboni so I don’t keep it in my garage anymore. We piped the whole water system from the nearby fire hydrant, through the Rinnai and into the Zamboni.

Jesse Campos, Big Sky’s rink maintenance manager, and I resurface the rink three days a week during the season and typically more often during the holidays, but it’s all weather dependent. It can be 10 F in February and the sun still melts the ice. Everybody loves the views, but we’re hoping to get some shade cloths put up in the future.

Last year the weather was challenging and we had to shut down in early February for a week. At the beginning of the season we have to wait until we get consistent cold temps, and it usually doesn’t happen until December. We typically do 20-30 floods before we open the rink, 1/16 of an inch of ice at a time.

The next step is to raise money for refrigeration in the rink, and we’ve started a savings account for a new Zamboni. This machine isn’t going to last forever.

BSSHA founding members include Ryan Hamilton, Griffin Kilby, Brian Dolan, and current officers and board members Blechta, Gary Hermann, Steve Rapp, Scott Leuzinger, Lindsey Pruiett, Chris Grace, and Detroit Red Wings great Marty Pavelich.

Ryan Blechta is BSSHA board president, the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club golf course superintendent and has lived in Big Sky for 11 years. He grew up playing hockey in Minnesota and has been a BSSHA Zamboni driver and hockey player since 2011.