After 25 years without it, group brings hockey to Big Sky

By Taylor Anderson, Big Sky Weekly Assistant Editor

When Ryan Blechta drives home from work as assistant superintendent of the Yellowstone Club Golf Course, he leaves his Chevy in the driveway.

The 32-year-old father-to-be and his wife Sarah would probably like keeping their cars a bit warmer during the Big Sky winter, there’s just no room in the garage.

That’s because the family’s home in the Town Center hosts another piece of big machinery: the Town Center Ice Rink’s custom ‘75 Zamboni.

The Zamboni’s name is probably more widespread than the machines themselves. Only about 9,500 machines have been made since Frank Zamboni founded the company in 1949. So, just how the couple came to park one in their garage exemplifies the 2-year-old Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association’s existence. It represents the group’s quick startup and current push for 501 (c) 3 status, and it helps tell the tale of hockey in Big Sky.

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Repeating History

Twenty-five years ago, Big Sky had hockey.

Locals used land at Buck’s T-4 and warm water from the laundry to create a skating rink where they hosted teams throughout the region. It was called the Gallatin Canyon Hockey Association, and ran from the early 1980s through 1987.

But interest fizzled, and the crew stopped making the rink.

Big Sky was left essentially iceless. Until five years ago, when Ryan Hamilton started rolling out of bed several times a week at 3:30 a.m. and driving from Bozeman to Big Sky to flood a makeshift rink before daylight.

That’s how he saw it done at his neighborhood rink, the Bogert Park outdoor ice rink in Bozeman, so that must have been the best way to do it, he thought.

“I found out they did that because it worked best for them, when really it’s best to flood after dark and let it freeze overnight,” he said.

That was the beginning of a new era of hockey in Big Sky.

That space in Town Center, currently home to the bus stop and fire pit in front of Chopper’s, was several feet from being level, so Hamilton rented Bobcat tractors to bring snow from nearby parking lots to make the field level.

Hamilton’s work was the result of several requests for a rink during the long winters. Still, it was only a small parcel of land with snow piled around for boards. Enter Bill Simkins.

The lead developer of the Town Center helped design land that would be used in summer for outdoor concerts and in winter for creating a nearly full-sized ice rink. (The pair said if not for the rink, they would’ve designed the concert venue with a slope for better drainage, rather than flat for an ice surface).

Simkins and Hamilton garnered interest around town in the prospect and delivered a request to the Planning and Zoning advisory board to allow the ice rink in the residential zone.

In June 2010, the group incorporated as an association, and the Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association was born, with Hamilton acting as president.

The BSSHA is born

Last October, about 15 people gathered in the Town Center on a Saturday and unloaded boards out of storage and manually put them together.

The white boards were raggedy and fading, holey in some spots, and visibly old, but the crew, some of them unable to skate, put the boards together before first snowfall. A few days later, Brian Scott and Lone Pine Builders assembled a crew and volunteered time painting the boards.

When cold hit town, Blechta and Griffin Kilby coordinated the next effort: connecting a fire-grade hose to the hydrant near the Town Center stage and flooding the area from nightfall till the lights turn off at 11 p.m. to create ice, one-sixteenth of an inch at a time.

After more than two weeks of flooding, Blechta opened his garage, fired up the propane-powered engine, rolled the Zamboni down Pheasant Tail Lane, turned and drove down Ousel Falls Road. He rolled through the parking lot and onto the ice rink about a block away from home to resurface the rink for the first time ever.

The drive capped off a long road for that Zamboni.

Once a backup for the now-defunct Gallatin Valley Ice Garden ice rink in Four Corners, the machine sat withering in a field, where it was to stay had it not been for the first annual Pavelich Cup Invitational.

Playing in that game was Jason Martel, owner of the Bozeman Ice Dogs Junior hockey team. Martel, who owned the Ice Garden, mentioned while talking with Blechta and head rink maintenance Griffin Kilby and Blechta that he had a Zamboni “just sitting in storage,” Blechta recalled.

Martel said they could have it if they could get it working.

Sight unseen, the board decided it would pay the money to get the machine running again, only after which did Blechta and Kilby drive to Bozeman for a look.

“It was rusty, really, really rusty,” Kilby said. “The brush didn’t work, the wash water mechanism didn’t work, the blade was shot, there was no towel.”

But it ran, and the rink became one of the few outdoor facilities to boast a full-sized ice resurfacing branding the prestigious name Zamboni.

A perfect pair

Blechta’s life consists, quite literally, of raising things from the ground up. As assistant superintendent, he focuses on understanding what makes a surface, grass, behave the way it does, and controls it.

As a property manager, Kilby’s job consists of making sure things are operating exactly as expected. If something is amiss, he fixes it.

The two pair perfectly for the meticulous work of dealing with below-zero temperatures and ice-melting UV rays from the high-altitude sun.

“What I think about before I go to bed and when I wake up is how sunny is it going to be?” Kilby said.

The job is mostly voluntary (Kilby was contracted to oversee rink operations), but they spend many more hours a week working on the rink than playing on it.

When talking about it, they speak with long-winded, quick-paced sentences, filled with excitement. They tout the talent that fills the rink every Friday and Sunday for member games, and say they feel rewarded every time someone is on the ice.

They’re quick to point out the two permanent light structures installed last summer, specifically for hockey.

“I like to work. I like to see people enjoying it,” Blechta said. “Maybe 10 years from now there’s an indoor rink. Maybe I’m not even here anymore. To be able to start something fresh and to have people to work with, it’s been great. We’re still getting there, baby steps.”

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WHAT’S IN STORE?

It’s a question inherent to any work in progress: what comes next?

“Is this it? No, this isn’t it,” Hamilton said, a smile curling at the corners of his mouth. “The future is a refrigerated outdoor facility with restrooms and changing rooms and employees.”

The Town Center is hoping to donating land in the Neighborhood Park area on Ousel Falls Road.

There, the BSSHA could attempt to create a full-sized concrete slab that would allow better control over the ice during winter, and act as a multi-use facility during the off-season.

In the immediate future, the group seems bent on hosting events.

This January, the second annual Pavelich Cup Invitational drew crowds and dozens of skaters from Bozeman. Another game will be played under the lights featuring a Bozeman Ice Dogs intrasquad game on Feb. 11 starting at 6:15 p.m. A team is coming from Miles City on Feb. 25 to play local skaters, and there are talks about hosting tournaments for regional teams on the ice next year.

Skaters are welcome to check the schedule and head out for free skate at various times throughout the week, and Kilby is teaching clinics for those looking to improve skills on the ice.

Whatever the case may be, so long as Big Sky has an ice rink, a passionate and extensive list of individuals will be working behind the scenes to make it happen. Chances are Kilby, Blechta, Simkins and Hamilton will be lurking somewhere in the background.