Skating On Thick Ice

Kotler Ice Arena opens the frozen floodgates for hockey frenzy

By Tom Hallberg, Photography by Camrin Dengel

Even on a wintry Friday night, Victor isn’t exactly a happening place. There are, however, at least two exceptions to this rule: a concert at the Knotty Pine Supper Club and skating at the local ice arena.

If you’re looking for a party to close out the week, the Kotler Ice Arena is the hottest place in town. Fridays are open skate, a time for families, teenagers, and hardcore athletes to lace up their skates and cruise in circles for a couple of hours while snow floats down and music blares from the speakers.

“It’s this place of equality that isn’t just about financial equality, but it’s also people of all different walks of life,” says Erica Linnell, former executive director of the Teton Valley Foundation (TVF).

The foundation runs the rink, facilitating youth hockey and figure skating programs, adult pond hockey leagues, and open skate, to name a few. But the history of skating in Teton Valley runs deeper than a single organization. It’s a story of grassroots action that gathered so much cold steam it spawned an entire community of dedicated families, donors, and devotees. It starts with a flood.

“We would go out and flood the park in Victor,” says Ari Kotler, who in the early 2000s was part of a group of guys determined to create the time and space to skate.

Victor’s Pioneer Park (now Sherman Park), where the bike pump track and ball fields are located, was one of their haunts. They poured rinks in other valley parks, too, and small, man-made rinks are still poured and maintained each winter in Driggs and Alta.

Ari is from Massachusetts, one of those cold states with smaller mountains where hockey is prevalent. He wanted to play the team sport of his childhood in the Tetons. He found a scrappy community, like brothers and hockey enthusiasts Troy and Eric Olson, native Minnesotans already making it happen with the help of folks like Gil Hundly, Rob Goodrich, and Chris Long, among others.

Back East, where pond hockey is an institution, the sport is often played on frozen lakes and other bodies of water. But in Teton Valley, without a plethora of ponds, they made their ice, which is harder than it sounds.

“It was just open ice,” Troy says. “There weren’t that many days that we skated. It was so much snow shoveling, we’d get warm ups, and it was a battle for sure.”

The uninitiated might think you just open the floodgates, then you have a hockey rink the next morning. Ice doesn’t freeze perfectly smooth, so it requires brushing, scraping, and other maintenance to become skateable, and you need some kind of boundary to create the rink.

“So, when the ice was good, you know, we’d be freezing in the middle of the night, making ice, doing the best we could to set up these wooden boards,” Ari says.

Our winters may stretch for months on end, but the window for a do-it-yourself rink is short. Sunlight melts the ice, and temperatures close to freezing can soften it to the point where skating isn’t crisp and fun (or safe).

For certain other ice-dependent sports, that’s not a huge problem.

“There was a big broomball program back then because the broomballers weren’t as particular about ice quality, safety, and all that stuff,” Ari says.

For hockey and figure skating, sloppy conditions mean subpar gameplay and sprained ankles. To remedy that problem, Ari formed the nonprofit Teton Basin Ice and Recreation, lending legitimacy to the burgeoning movement.

The group wanted to find a way to create a permanent rink in Teton Valley. Using Salmon, Idaho, as a model, they desired for hockey, and the opportunities ice creates for other skaters, to become a larger part of the winter sports ecosystem.

The east-central Idaho community of Salmon, just over two hundred miles away, is tourism dependent, much like Teton Valley. But its winter options are limited because the closest ski resort, Lost Trail Powder Mountain, is 45 miles away and only open Thursdays through Sundays. So, Salmon’s hockey families and city officials invested in a refrigerated arena, allowing them to play all winter and host tournaments.

“People in Salmon would tell you that before the ice rink was there, they basically closed up shop for the winter,” says Jeff Potter, who helped get the local project off the ground as a volunteer and another past executive director of TVF before becoming a Victor city councilor and later the town’s mayor. “Now, there’s a pretty vibrant wintertime economy [in Salmon] because they’ve got six to ten
teams coming in from out of town [nearly] every weekend to come and play hockey.”

During Jeff’s executive director role, TVF was not yet running a hockey rink.

The group looked at places in Driggs and the fairgrounds, but then found the perfect spot—the park in Victor where they were already playing. The city gave them a 99-year lease on land to the south of the sprawling complex of recreational spaces. In 2010, they constructed the green steel structure near Grand Teton Brewing that is visible from Highway 33 as you drive into Victor from Teton Pass. Even with a covered permanent rink and a space to grow the skating community, it still wasn’t perfect.

“The first couple years, it was a two-thirds sheet, if you will,” Jeff says. “It wasn’t until a few years later that we had enough money to build out the rest of the length of the rink.”

Around that same time, Teton Basin Ice and Recreation merged with TVF, taking the first steps toward the ultimate goal—maintaining quality ice all winter long.

Merging fused the missions of organizations that offered different community amenities: The foundation, which was founded by Grand Targhee Resort general manager Geordie Gillett in 2005, organized Music on Main, a summer concert series, while Kotler’s organization was obviously winter-focused. Combining the two served a couple of purposes: trimming inefficiencies and creating a nonprofit that could offer year-round affordable fun.

“There was definitely a shared commitment to providing recreation that addressed a broad piece of the community,” says Shannon Brooks Hamby, former TVF board chair who started with the organization about ten years ago.

As with any merger, it took time to shake things out. Folks from Teton Basin Ice and Recreation were, of course, heavily focused on the success of the newly constructed rink, while board members who started with the foundation were more keyed into the summer music side of things.

“When Shannon joined the board, that really shifted,” Erica Linnell says. “Everyone really understood that we’re one organization, and there was really this cool building period.”

Following the development of synergy around the mission, Erica took the role of executive director in 2014. Her tenure included an expansion that dramatically changed the rink and grew the skating community.

During all those organizational machinations, kids kept skating. Teams formed; they started playing against towns around the region that also had programs, like Salmon and Idaho Falls, and Jackson and Pinedale in Wyoming. Youth hockey started growing through word of mouth and from kids catching the hockey bug from their friends.

There was one problem: Even with the new rink, they were at the whim of Mother Nature. The rink lacked chillers, the equipment that keeps the ice frozen even when the outside conditions aren’t ideal.

“We were lucky to get five or six weeks of good ice before you started getting thaws that melted it so you had to close,” Jeff says. “It was really hard to build youth programs and stuff with that kind of inconsistency.”

Enter Erica and the newly synergized board. If inconsistent ice was the problem, chillers were the solution. They started a capital campaign to raise the money for improvements. In a perfect world, they would have raised cash for everything in one shot, including chillers, extra bathrooms, locker rooms, and spectator seating. But the price tag for all that—well into the seven figures—would have been a steep ask.

“We really thoughtfully looked at that plan and asked, ‘Is this what we want to shoot for right now?’” Shannon says. “We were uncertain how long it might take to raise several million dollars for this rink in this community.”

Instead, they divided the campaign into phases, with the first to include the cooling system, basic locker rooms, and an extension of the rink to regulation size. The fundraising took less than a year, garnering roughly half a million dollars.

“It wasn’t like a couple really big donors came in and said, ‘Here are some six-figure gifts,’” Shannon says. “A lot of people gave to the campaign, and it was really reflective of how much the community valued the rink.”

A funny thing happens when you quadruple the amount of ice time kids get. With ample time to practice their skills, they improve quickly.

“I would say we have already become very competitive,” says Tate Jarry, who heads the Teton Valley Cutthroats Youth Hockey parent committee, which manages coaches for the teams.

The youth programs had a hundred and thirty kids last year, Tate says, with kids as young as four all the way up through high school. The teams are co-ed, but a girls-only program is growing quickly.

“Once you hit the Bantam level, which is thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, they start playing check hockey,” says Jen Fisher, the volunteer girls’ program coordinator. “We had a number of mothers of girls who said, ‘We’re not so sure about check hockey with teenage girls and teenage boys.’”

Though co-ed hockey has “historically worked out well,” Jen says, due to that parental concern and a national push from USA Hockey to grow girls’ hockey programs, girls are starting their own teams, with a particularly strong contingent in Teton Valley at the eight- to nine-year-old range.

Like the building of the rink, the girls’ team epitomizes the way ice skating and hockey have grown in Teton Valley. It started with a few girls’ passion for skating and evolved organically.

“I told the girls every week all off season, ‘If you want a team, you’ve got to help us grow it, you know, invite your friends,’” Jen says.

A passing remark between kids, a pair of borrowed skates, an invitation to open skate, that’s how things grow. Combined with the relatively inexpensive nature of skating compared to other winter sports, it’s easy to see why Friday night open skate is so packed.

“We have a diverse community in Teton Valley, and it’s important as a community facility to be able to reach all aspects of the community,” says Amy Fradley, current executive director of TVF. Amy stepped in as executive director this past summer following Lauren Bennett’s tenure. Lauren oversaw another important milestone at the rink: the warming hut and pro shop expansion and addition of more bathrooms.

Amy is proud that skating’s impact has expanded to include adult pond hockey teams, with fifty women playing in the league, and a bevy of learn-to-skate programs for both hockey and figure skating. The foundation also offers scholarships for kids to play in youth hockey, funded by a donor who requests only thank-you cards.

Even as the hockey community has grown, with dozens of kids, parents, and adults choosing to skate, it hasn’t lost the grassroots feeling that drove enthusiasts to flood those first rinks in the early 2000s. For years, Troy and Eric Olson spent their winter evenings after work at the arena preparing it for the next day, sometimes even taking their construction crews to work on the ice at lunch. Now parents volunteer and businesses donate money for jerseys and travel expenses for the coaches.

“The general mentality is, if my kid’s going to be involved, I’m going to be involved to make it better,” Tate says. “I think that’s the mentality of this whole valley. Everybody’s vested, they want it to succeed. And that’s how we’ve gotten this far.”

Ari, the Olson brothers, and the many other early hockey devotees might not have imagined how fast skating would grow when they started this journey. Now Ari estimates “15 to 20 percent” of the valley skates in some form, a number that seems astronomical considering the sport’s DIY roots. So, that scrappy group of skaters obviously found something—a pent-up energy, a desire for something new—that just needed an outlet.

“It’s been really amazing,” Ari says. “I mean, I guess if you build it they will come.”