By Joseph T. O’Connor
Explorebigsky.com editor

BIG SKY – Big Sky hockey is gaining ground, and the organization holding the reigns is taking steps forward. This season kicks off with the first ever men’s hockey league and a big game: the Pavelich Invitational on Jan. 12.

The Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association begins its third season at the Town Center ice rink, and Griffin Kilby is excited for the coming ice time. After all, the BSSHA co-founder now gets paid to maintain the rink, and the community is rallying behind the nonprofit organization, which earned tax-exempt status last June.

The Resort Tax Board awarded BSSHA $26,500 for ice maintenance, insurance, two new overhead lights and partly, to pay Kilby.

“[We were] ecstatic,” said the association’s 30-year-old board member and rink manager who, along with Ryan Blechta, started BSSHA two years ago. “Without help from resort tax, it was a struggle. Now [we can] offer a better product to the community.”

Additional funding provided by grants from the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation and membership dues contribute to the organization’s success.

In early November, the Gallatin Conservation Commission also leant a hand by voting to extend BSSHA’s permit by 10 years, and Kilby attributes this extension to more than 50 emails from community members on the organization’s behalf.

BSSHA began in 2011 with a grassroots effort and a drive to provide this community with an alternative to skiing or snowboarding. In October of that year, Simkins-Hallin delivered the rink’s boards, a $500 purchase, from Grand Forks, N.D. to its temporary location, in front of the pavilion in Town Center. Kilby and Blechta hope to move the facility to a more permanent location soon.

For now, the nonprofit is growing. It hosts broomball, a kids’ clinic and a four-team adult hockey league, which has games on Monday and Thursday evenings. It’s the first season Big Sky will operate the league, consisting of seven to eight players per team. He already has 30 players signed up to play.

For Kilby, it’s all about community and his love for hockey. He began skating on a pond his parents owned near Duluth, Minn. at three-years-old and started playing organized youth hockey at 5. After playing in high school and then for a junior team (between high school and college), Kilby attended Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minn. where he played hockey all four years.

January will mark the third annual Pavelich Invitational, a game named for Big Sky resident and former Detroit Red Wings hockey player Marty Pavelich. The four-time Stanley Cup winner will drop the ceremonial first puck at the game, slated for 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12.

After 10 seasons with Detroit, he moved to Florida, but realized he wanted to be near snow.

“I always kept this place in the back of my mind,” said Pavelich, who visited Big Sky on vacation, but knew he’d be back. He eventually did move to Big Sky, nearly 20 years ago, to pursue his other love, skiing.

“There were too many old people in Florida,” Pavelich said. “I told them, ‘I’m going skiing.’”

Pavelich became a mountain host at Big Sky Resort and remained so for the next 15 years. He loved to “meet ‘em and greet ‘em,” he said.

When the ex-pro first moved here, he played in Four Corners and was happy when Kilby and Blechta decided to work on a rink in Town Center. Now Pavelich, 83, is joining the two BSSHA founders in a dream to move the rink to a long-term facility for the entire community.

“I’d like to raise $1 million or so for a concrete slab with a temporary roof over it that could sit 4 or 5,000 people,” he said.

“We’re in the process of working on fundraising to move to a more permanent location near Town Center,” said Kilby who. “And we will as funding becomes available.”

Teaching area youth about the game could put Big Sky on the ice hockey map.

“Hockey is here in town now,” Pavelich said. “If kids become good skaters, they’ll be great skiers. All it takes is one kid from Big Sky to make it to the NHL for hockey to take off here.”