Steve Tartaglino believes his sanity might be questioned if he could accurately say how much time he volunteers each year for the Woodland Ice Center.
“I counted the hours one season, and I started counting in September and I got to the tail end of February, and I think it was over 3,000 hours, so I never went back to keeping track,” he said. “There’s a fine line between passion and crazy, and I know I cross it at times.”
Tartaglino was one of the investors who financed bringing the ice rink to Kalispell’s Woodland Park in 2007. He has thrown himself wholeheartedly into the task of keeping it running ever since.
Thankfully, the Kalispell building contractor and former college hockey player has found other like-minded adults who have his back.
“We’ve got a group of people who basically give up four months of their lives for this,” said Flathead Valley Hockey Association board member Terry Judd. “It’s a tremendous, stunning amount of volunteer hours.”
Dozens of people share responsibilities as wide ranging as collecting admissions for open skate and drop-in hockey times, organizing hockey teams and tournaments, coaching, maintaining the rink, working concessions, organizing other volunteers and “zamming” the ice.
“It’s a $160,000 a year budget, and we don’t have one paid employee,” FVHA president Kim Morisaki said. “It’s a facility, it’s customer service, it’s scheduling and managing people. It’s just like running a business. It’s all about the systems and having a budget and operating procedure, and dealing with the relationships of people who work there.”
Morisaki estimates she puts in three hours of hockey-related tasks every night, and sometimes up to 10 hours on weekends. She is not alone. She figures there are up to 35 adults donating 20 plus hours a week to the rink during the season and 20 hours a month during the rest of the year. Most are parents who want to maintain a home for hockey in Kalispell; commuting to the Whitefish facility is not feasible for many families.
“It’s important for Kalispell to have a place like this for kids, particularly in the winter,” Jodi Harms, a mother of two FVHA hockey players, said. She’s usually at the rink six days a week with her duties as team manager of the Flathead Flames PeeWee team and also as “manager of all the team managers.”
“I have a full-time job, and there’s times when I’m putting in as many hours with this as my regular job staying up late organizing or making tournament programs or schedules,” she said. “There are times when I feel overwhelmed, but the kids keep me going. I want it to be the best it can be for them.”
Morisaki said her son Keaden, a 12-year-old PeeWee player, has developed a passion for hockey and she is driven to make sure that the sport is always available to him and his brother, 7-year-old Kayne.
She also is a big supporter of the inclusive philosophy of the FVHA.
“We are all about skating and hockey skills and sportsmanship, and we accept and embrace all kids with whatever skating experience they have,” she said. “Sometimes hockey has a reputation of brawling on ice, and that’s not part of our culture. We say, ‘Don’t get mad, just skate harder.’”
One of the bigger challenges for the Woodland Ice Center volunteers is building the ice in temperatures that aren’t necessarily frosty, and then keeping it in skating shape through whatever weather is thrown at them.
The rink was originally purchased, along with the chiller, after it was used for the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic, a game between Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin at Lambeau Field.
Because the rink is a temporary facility, each season the boards and glass have to be reinstalled. Then the cooler-filled tubing underneath the ice is surrounded by a sand base. The fluid in the 22 miles’ worth of tubing is cooled and then water is flooded around the tubes to become the initial layer of ice, acting as a cement-like bed. Paper is placed on that and the skating surface is built with one layer of ice after another, with each layer given time to freeze before adding the next.
It is a time-consuming process that can only be done at night and takes about a week to complete.
“Sunshine is our enemy when we are building the ice,” Tartaglino said. “We can’t make headway during the day. You have to build a little at a time, let it freeze, then put down more paper, let it freeze, then add more water.”
The flooding process continues every few hours all night, requiring someone to show up and add more water even into the loneliest hours of the morning.
Tartaglino said he has learned more about the science of ice and cooling than he could have imagined.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t know I’d have to know all this, or I’d have said, ‘There’s no way I’m doing this,’” he said. “But it’s quite fascinating.”
An open-air roof over the rink is a major association goal. Covering the ice would eliminate much of the weather-related maintenance and lower power bills by keeping the sun off the ice and decreasing stress on the chiller.
To help put the rink on a more solid financial footing, Tartaglino would like to see it operating in partnership with the city of Kalispell. He points out that it would be a worthwhile investment to put tax dollars into the rink, not just for hockey and skating enthusiasts, but also for an economic boost to the city.
Eight teams came in from out of town, for example, for the recent New Year’s weekend girls tournament.
“Each team has an average of 15 players and it doesn’t take long to realize that’s a heck of a shot in the arm economically,” Tartaglino said.
Because her “real” job is with Montana West Economic Development, Morisaki is also well aware that the rink and all its volunteers provide real economic value to the valley. It helps that they are involved in a sport especially loved by Canadians.
“As an economic developer, I have a special interest in jamborees,” she said. “You get teams coming in from Montana, Idaho, Washington and all over Alberta and B.C. to stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. Especially Canadians who love to come and shop. We see that as a great thing for the (tourist) offseason.”
But for Morisaki, the biggest payoff in volunteering is more personal.
“Sometimes it feels like being a CEO, and all the things that go along with it, but it’s so exciting and fun to see the rink grow,” she said. “It’s very gratifying that we’re not doing all this hard work for nothing. People are becoming aware that there is a great hockey program here. I’m really proud of it and the people who are making it happen.”
For more information on the Flathead Valley Hockey Association and the Woodland Ice Center, visit http://flatheadflames.org.
A Fundraising Challenge
The Woodland Ice Center received a much-needed economic boost last summer.
The Flathead Youth Foundation made the challenge to the Flathead Valley Hockey Association to raise $100,000 last spring, saying it would match whatever they raised up to that amount.
It turned out to be a surprisingly easy task when one anonymous donor gave the FVHA $100,000 in one shot. With the donations plus the matching money from the youth foundation, the rink gained more than $208,000 by June 1.
The money helped bring the mortgage down from its original $420,000 to $190,000, and paid off some utility bills. The rink has also benefited this year from the city of Kalispell contributing to improvements such as remodeled bathrooms, a new roof for the locker rooms, and new matting on all the floors. A grant from Flathead Electric Cooperative has gone toward gutters on the roof and will help with the installation of permanent seating.
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