By Tyler Allen
Explorebigsky.com contributor

BOZEMAN – Bozeman is a hockey town. Known nationally for outdoor pursuits such as skiing, hunting and climbing, this corner of Montana also has a thriving skating community. There is abundant open space to pursue outdoor recreation, but skaters suffer from the opposite problem: a lack of ice.

Since the Ice Garden in Four Corners closed in 2006 there’s only been one indoor sheet of ice in the area – the Haynes Pavilion – while the number of hockey players, figure skaters and other ice enthusiasts continues to grow.

“Growth of hockey [and other skating] in the Gallatin Valley supported two sheets of ice,” said Justin Tibbit, Development Director of the Gallatin Ice Foundation. “When the Ice Garden closed, all of a sudden you had programs from two sheets of ice compressed into one and it stretched the ice time.”

The GIF was founded in 2006 after the Ice Garden closed, to address this demand for ice time. It’s proposed a new sheet of ice next to Haynes Pavilion at the Gallatin Valley Fairgrounds, a year-round skating complex that would eventually have permanent bleachers seating 1,000 people.

Since Haynes is a pavilion hosting other uses during the summer and isn’t designed for operation in the warmer months, the skating season in Bozeman is only five months. And during the season that ice is completely booked from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.

“Growth [of skating opportunities] has hit a bump stop,” Tibbit said. “If we build another facility, all these programs can keep growing. If not, they’re pretty much all full.”

The Bozeman Ice Dogs, Montana State University Bobcats, Haynes Hockey League (HHL), Youth Ice Dogs program, public skating time, Puck Lunch and the Bozeman figure skating club all vie for the limited ice time. There’ve also been requests for a curling league and community interest in broomball.

The HHL alone has 500 adults on 28 teams in four different divisions, according to Julie Keck, Bozeman Amateur Hockey Association Operations Director.

“The adult league is full,” Keck said. “This is the first year we had to turn people away despite expanding by two teams [from last year]. Almost every player in the adult league plays one game a week but most would prefer to play at least two, she said.

The youth teams have to split the rink and practice on half the ice. The Youth Ice Dogs program has 225 skaters on 11 teams and there is little room for that program to expand despite the growing demand.

“We’re not even trying to expand the youth house league,” Keck said. “Because they have two sheets of ice, Missoula has four teams that play house league and then also travel. If we had two sheets of ice we’d be marketing a much bigger program.”

Public skating time is limited by the demand for organized hockey and skating, and is only open between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m., a time when few can utilize it, Keck said. Saturdays from noon to 1:20 p.m. is the only “prime time” public skating and none is offered at night.

So far, the GIF has raised $300,000 for their “Raise the Barn” campaign. The first phase of the plan is estimated to cost about $1 million and would fund construction. After that the ice plant would be upgraded to meet the demand of two sheets, the mechanical room expanded, and then the slab with refrigeration coils would be poured for the new facility.

Next, a new entryway to the fairgrounds from Oak Street would be completed, and the parking lot would be improved and expanded. Eventually locker rooms, bleachers, a mezzanine, events shop and restaurant are planned.

It’s a project that will take a significant fundraising effort by the GIF, but if the facility is built the positive economic impact on the community could also be significant.

“This could be one more critical piece to fueling the [local] economy,” Tibbit said. “There are lots of ancillary benefits from this facility.” He cites the rippling affects that hockey camps –which could be expanded greatly with new ice – could have on the region, as families travel to Bozeman with their kids and spend money skiing, golfing, dining, or visiting Yellowstone National Park or Big Sky.

Bozeman could also be a destination for NHL teams seeking a high altitude training facility, Keck said.

The future of the GIF fundraising efforts include sitting down with donors and talking about the project, Tibbit said, as well as the Gloves Off Gala on May 4, 2013 at the Baxter Hotel in Bozeman, which will feature a silent auction for the first time this year.

A second sheet of ice in Bozeman will take some time, but as the skating community – and demand for ice – grows in the Gallatin Valley, that time may not be far off.