By Brandon Walker
BIG SKY – Already heralded for its bountiful selection of outdoor winter activities, Big Sky’s ice sports are garnering increasing interest.
Both the youth hockey program and curling league have witnessed increased participation this year, while three-on-three hockey and curling leagues each reached their capacity limits as well, according to Ryan Blechta, president of the Big Sky Skating and Hockey Association.
“You don’t have to be a hockey player to like the rink,” said Blechta, who’s been involved in BSSHA since its humble beginning in 2009. “You can just be a skater, you could like broomball, you could like curling.”
Designated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, BSSHA has evolved from operating a small, portable rink with no means of resurfacing ice to a regulation-sized rink with an established location in Big Sky Town Center, complete with a Zamboni to tend the ice. Yet that’s merely the tip of the iceberg.
According to Blechta, the 65 youth hockey participants this season, ranging in age from 4 to 14, represent a 15 percent increase in last year’s numbers, and Blechta estimates that Broomball participation has increased between 5 and 10 percent from a season ago.
Meanwhile, due to caps to ensure an even number of teams, both the curling league—made up of 120 athletes that filled enrollment within 48 hours of the registration period opening—and three-on-three hockey leagues—another 72 players—maxed out their participation limits this season.
All BSSHA programs began for the season in late December, except curling, which started on Jan. 8. Blechta said, weather permitting, all seasons will run through March 22.
One community staple, the Pavelich Invitational, won’t take place this year. Blechta acknowledged the restrictions present due to COVID-19 and said he views the game as a community event. While he believes it would be possible to host the game without fans in attendance, while adhering to guidelines, doing so wouldn’t be the same.
“I think it’s just a good year to kind of take that off. Let’s see what happens with COVID, and I’m sure we’ll be able to have events that are larger come a year from now,” Blechta said. “So, we’ll do it bigger and better next year.”
With an increase in participation for the youth hockey program came some organizational changes to help better assist the participants. Athletes could participate in either “Advanced”—Mondays and Thursdays—or “Beginner” practices—Wednesdays— this season, an adjustment that BSSHA Youth Hockey Coach Joseph McFadden says has been beneficial.
“It gets better every day,” McFadden said. “I feel like a lot of the kids get to ski, which translates pretty well to ice skating.”
On Jan. 31, those in the Advanced Youth Hockey program hosted a Bozeman U-14 girls hockey team for a friendly game on the Big Sky Town Center rink. “The kids had a blast and they worked their butt off and you saw them really care about what was going on in the rink, you know, not just another day of practice,” Blechta said.
After roughly a month of practice and scrimmaging against one another, the game afforded the athletes the opportunity to test their skills against a new opponent and allowed their coaches to find areas where they can continue to improve.
“It kind of … showed the flaws and what we need to work on,” McFadden said, pointing specifically to possessing the puck. “Our skating was really strong.”
McFadden said he enjoys giving back to the sport and while the athletes may not be aware, he along with the other coaches hope to hone more than just the athletes’ abilities with a stick, puck and skates.
“You’re still getting to put on ice skates and helping out kids, that will hopefully not just take it in a hockey sense but in a life sense … like solving problems and becoming team members, and having respect for themselves and the opponent,” he said, adding that “losing gracefully and trying their hardest and learning how to fail,” are other key lessons.
Looking ahead, the youth hockey program hopes to welcome Lewistown for another friendly match in the near future and these games could lead to eventually establishing a travel or club team in Big Sky, according to both Blechta and McFadden.
“I think it would be amazing to get a travel team going in the next few years,” McFadden said. He added that he’d welcome a potential high school hockey team down the road as well.
Blechta drew a comparison between the hockey program and the newly established Lone Peak High School varsity soccer teams, which started as club teams in 2018.
In addition to possible program expansion in years to come, the Town Center rink is receiving upgrades in the near future. A concrete pad will be laid down this spring to permanently position the otherwise portable chilling tubes where the rink currently resides, saving time on set-up and likely allowing the rink to open for a longer period of time each year. And the Big Sky Community Organization has allotted space inside of the soon-to-be-completed BASE community center for BSSHA to house its Zamboni and utilize as a mechanical area.
Blechta, who said he wouldn’t have anticipated BSSHA growing into what it is today, is looking forward to an increased collaboration between BSSHA and BSCO.
“We’re hoping to join up with BSCO … and utilize a lot of their knowledge with programming and some of their systems they use,” he said. “We’re really excited about that because we feel like we’ve gotten to a point now where we’re getting bigger and bigger every year.”
Blechta said the effort wouldn’t be successful without key components, pointing to the volunteers who lend their time assisting the organization and the sponsors who’ve helped BSSHA acquire equipment, among other necessities.
Big Sky’s ice sports future is heating up. “We’re already thinking we need another rink,” Blechta said.