There’s no universal starter kit for building a top-notch outdoor ice rink, but an army of community-minded Flathead residents figured out a formula that worked for them. All it took was nearly 140 volunteers performing more than 2,000 hours of work worth about $300,000 in labor savings.
The Flathead Valley Hockey Association formed in 2007 and created the Woodland Ice Center in Kalispell, but the facility was less than ideal: a portable rink constructed atop an old swimming pool filled with sand. Each year, volunteers had to piece the rink together from scratch, a grueling process that took numerous hours and caused just as many headaches.
Even after setup was finished, a host of ice quality issues persisted through the winter. Cracks inevitably emerged, perhaps an inch thick and a couple feet deep, and volunteers had to dump five-gallon buckets of water and slush into the cracks to fill them. They’d repeat the process when new cracks formed.
“We had a bucket brigade; it was archaic,” said Sara Busse, the FVHA fundraising chair. “The amount of work was truly insane.”
Between the manpower necessary for continued maintenance and the astronomical electricity bill, the FVHA acknowledged that the arrangement was no longer sustainable and launched an ambitious “Set it in Stone” campaign in May 2016 to install a permanent concrete surface, insulation and miles of new subsurface tubing.
Two separate contractor bid estimates came in at $400,000 and $600,000, respectively, too expensive for a volunteer organization. So the FVHA, led predominantly by parents of hockey players, decided to go it alone. Over the ensuing year, the group raised more than $100,000, all from private donations and no taxpayer dollars. The project also benefited from discounted materials, but the remaining financial gap was bridged by a source that would ultimately make the new Woodland Ice Center so unique: sweat equity, with volunteers doing all the work.
Shawn Baker, a hockey father and project manager at Swank Enterprises, signed on as volunteer project manager. Nearly every day for three months, between August and November, Baker wrapped up his day job, which includes overseeing construction of Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s new 200,000-square-foot pediatrics center, and headed straight to Woodland Park, where he would lead however many volunteers who showed up that evening. They often worked until 10 or 11 at night.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t have a lot of construction skills but had good intentions,” Baker said. “We trained them and got them going.”
Reflecting on the long hours, Baker added: “I kind of had to reintroduce myself to my wife after it was all over.”
The FVHA held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Nov. 29 to celebrate the grand opening of the new Woodland Ice Center, which is far more efficient, safer and better in myriad ways than its predecessor. Paper plates inscribed with messages were handed out as awards to key volunteers. Baker was christened “King Concrete,” while FVHA board president Christy Eisinger was honored as “Queen Concrete.”
“They are the superstars of the whole thing,” Busse said of Baker and Eisinger.
The Woodland Ice Center’s 2017-2018 season kicked off with the seventh edition of the annual Craft Brewer’s Cup on Dec. 1-3, which featured three days of hockey tournament action and one day of beverage imbibing. Twelve teams participated on the ice, while brewfest attendees chose from nearly 20 Montana beers on tap on Saturday.
The tournament was an opportunity to showcase the unique experience, for both spectators and participants, of competitive hockey on an outdoor rink. Whereas an indoor facility can be climate-controlled and protected from the elements, an outdoor rink is subject to the whims of Montana’s winter weather, which adds both logistical dilemmas and specific wonders that can’t be offered under a roof.
According to Baker, Woodland Ice Center is one of four outdoor rinks in Montana maintained for recreational activities. The other three are in Red Lodge, Lewistown and Philipsburg. Busse said each year Canadian hockey teams “are literally waiting for the day they can sign up for our outdoor hockey tournament.”
“They don’t have outdoor hockey rinks anymore, and they think that’s the way hockey should be played,” Busse said.
Eisinger and Busse envision the facility not only as a nice home for the FVHA’s USA Hockey-sanctioned youth programs, which provide opportunities for ages 3 up through high school, but also a community hub and regional economic driver. The rink has schedules for adult drop-in hockey and open skating, and in the warm months the concrete surface could be used for activities such as basketball, box lacrosse and rollerskating.
“It’s something hopefully the people of Kalispell will enjoy for years and years to come,” Eisinger said. “I’m just so grateful for everyone’s help and support. It makes you appreciate living in this community. It’s been really fun and very rewarding.”
For more information about the FVHA, its hockey leagues, schedules for open public skating and more, visit www.flatheadflames.org.