Shortly after Tony Clayton moved to Kalispell from Las Vegas three years ago, one of the first things he and his grandson did was head to the Chamber of Commerce with the question: “Where’s the rink?”
Clayton, who had coached his grandson’s ice hockey team for years, was surprised to find there are more rinks in the desert city he was leaving than in the Flathead, a land of lakes and snow. “A city this size, you would think they’d have a rink to go to,” he said. But no such luck. The nearest rink is in Whitefish – a 15-mile drive from Kalispell, and an even longer trip for the communities farther south.
“It was so difficult for some of these people because they live in Lakeside, Somers, Bigfork,” Clayton said. “Now is the time, because there are more and more youth that are getting involved in hockey, that we need something in Kalispell.”
After a few years of making that drive, Clayton, along with hockey parents Steve and Genia Tartaglino, formed the Flathead Valley Hockey Association in February to get an ice rink built and a new youth hockey league established in Kalispell. The group is currently spending its weekends signing kids up to play this fall.
Steve Tartaglino said he was surprised by how rapidly things started happening once his group’s chapter was voted in by USA Hockey, the national governing body for the sport, and the Montana Amateur Hockey Association.
The next step was gaining approval from the city to actually put the rink somewhere. Genia Tartaglino described having a sales pitch all worked out in her head when she called Mayor Pam Kennedy to sell her on the benefits of a rink. But Kennedy’s response, Genia said, was simply to ask what the city could do to help.
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Baker began shuttling the Tartaglinos among different sites that could accommodate the structure. The group eventually found an ideal spot in the center of Woodland Park, on a flat field where the old Bruckhauser pool used to be, next to what is currently the Woodland Park Center. With nearby parking, bathrooms and a concession stand in the old pool house – not used by the city during the winter – the site was ideal.
“The city has gone way beyond their means,” Tartaglino said. “They did nothing but guide us the right way and help us.” The pool house needs to be winterized, and Flathead Electric Co-op has put up half the financing to upgrade the building’s electricity to power the “chillers,” which make the ice.
The rink – including boards, glass, goals, benches, chillers and that most treasured of ice arena maintenance machines, the Zamboni – are all sitting in pieces in Spokane, Wash. Clayton found the rink online and the group purchased it from Ice Rink Events with interim financing for $350,000. The rink was previously used for the U.S. figure skating championships in Spokane and was laid down on Green Bay, Wisconsin’s Lambeau Field in 2006 for a historic college hockey game between Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin. Construction begins Oct. 3.
Steve Tartaglino, intends for the rink to offer recreational youth hockey, as well as adult open skating, public sessions and figure skating sessions in the first year. If enough kids turn out, the group will look into forming traveling teams, adult and women’s leagues, and more formal figure skating programs – and Steve is looking for volunteers to spearhead those programs.
Steve, who once played for the University of Maine, believes a hockey program in Kalispell will offer a much-needed winter athletic alternative to kids who may not be interested in skiing or snowboarding – and it’s a sport that teaches teamwork in a way that those individual snow sports simply can’t.
Also helping to get the program off the ground will be former-NHL player and part-time Kalispell resident Mark Pederson. Reached last week, Pederson, along with fellow former pro Neil Wilkinson, planned to sign autographs at the Sportsman and Ski Haus and encourage kids to register for the hockey league.
Pederson, a Saskatchewan native who currently assistant coaches a minor-league team in Bakersfield, Calif., said he can’t believe hockey isn’t more popular in the Flathead, with so many big hockey towns in Canada just north of the border. NHL star Scott Neidermayer, captain of current Stanley Cup winners the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, hails from Cranbrook, north of Eureka.
Pederson hopes to teach a few clinics and give lessons this winter. He and Steve Tartaglino are encouraged by bare-bones, all volunteer hockey operations they’ve seen begin in other towns, that within a few years grow into multiple leagues with a permanent indoor rink.
“This gives the kids so many options to get out there, exercise, and meet kids,” Pederson said. “This is, hopefully, step number one, here.”
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