A New Frontier

A community's passion for the game is on display as Sheridan, Wyo., stages its own version of the winter classic
By: 
Brad Estes

For local fans and members of the NA3HL's Gillette Wild and Yellowstone Quake there was no better way to ring in the New Year than at the Wyoming Winter Classic in Sheridan, Wyo.For local fans and members of the NA3HL's Gillette Wild and Yellowstone Quake there was no better way to ring in the New Year than at the Wyoming Winter Classic in Sheridan, Wyo.

Not so long ago, playing hockey in Sheridan, Wyo., required navigating jagged, uneven ice on a frozen pond set in the middle of an open field. Things are more organized these days, but to the delight of those who gathered for the 2nd annual Wyoming Winter Classic, the playing surface remains a part of the great outdoors.

Officially, ice hockey has only been in Sheridan for a dozen years, but there may not be a better place to see the sport grow. A group of hockey diehards continue to push the game forward and consider the community’s cherished open-air facility, dubbed Sheridan Ice, as their most important commodity.

That was evident on New Year’s Day as the Gillette Wild and Yellowstone Quake faced off in a Junior hockey exhibition in front of about 300 curious local fans set in the neutral site hundreds of miles from each team’s respective indoor arenas.

The Wild and Quake are part of a seven-team Frontier Division consisting of Wyoming and Montana teams that play in the North American 3 Hockey League, one of nine USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier III Junior leagues.

“We found out that we had kids who had never skated outside, that’s why we started this event. This is what we’re all about”

“We found out that we had kids who had never skated outside, that’s why we started this event. This is what we’re all about,” said Dwayne Dillinger, managing partner of the Wild.

“One of the great things about these Junior teams is that we try and do a lot of things in our communities.”

That trend can be felt in towns scattered throughout the upper Midwest, where Junior hockey is woven into the fabric of local communities. And while Sheridan may be somewhat late to the party, many people like Dillinger believe that Junior hockey could thrive in the northern fringes of the Cowboy State because of its favorable geography and its budding passion for the game.

Nobody knows that better than Zane Garstad, a member of Sheridan Ice’s nonprofit board and the coach of the local high school team. He is one of a handful of enthusiastic hockey people who are leading a charge to make that happen.

Their passion, along with a $5 million donation from local landowner Forrest Mars, an heir to the M&M Mars chocolate empire, is leading the way to a large-scale rink renovation, which includes a new roof, starting in March.

While they may lose some of the natural charm that goes with an outdoor rink, Garstad knows it’s a necessary move to take hockey to the next level.

Originally from Canada, Garstad came to Sheridan in 1983 on a rodeo scholarship at the local college. To say that his stay here has lasted considerably longer than the typical eight-second ride would be a bit of an understatement. Along the way he met his wife, earned his master’s degree and became the director of admissions services at his alma mater.

Garstad grew up doing rodeo in the summers and playing hockey in the winter because, as he says, “that’s what you do up there.”

And that’s what they do in Sheridan. So it was only natural that the between-period entertainment at the Winter Classic featured a rodeo-style barrel race with youth players flying around barrels on skates instead of on horseback. One local Peewee player posted the day’s best time of 21.96 seconds, a mere three to four ticks off a solid pro rodeo time.

Not unlike rodeo, hockey operates uniquely outside the much-ballyhooed prep sports model employed throughout most of the Cowboy State.

“We’re not going to see many people go to the NHL,” Garstad admitted. “But what we’re trying to do is teach them how to be good individuals who contribute to their communities.”

And the community returned the favor on the first day of 2015 by opening its doors and welcoming the Junior teams to a local brewpub where local hockey families served them a potluck lunch as they watched the real Winter Classic on TV.

As the clocked ticked down on the drop of the puck, youngsters scrambled atop a 15-foot high pile of snow that had been scraped off the rink during the season. Nearby a train steamed by on an overpass that runs through town prompting players to stop their pregame drills and soak in the scene.

The game itself – a 7-4 Wild victory – was a relatively modest affair with players avoiding big hits and exchanging jokes during stoppages. Many later admitted having to adjust to how fast the puck traveled across the harder outdoor ice.

In the second period, the crowd showed its appreciation for the skills of these players by reacting to an attractive wraparound goal from Wild first-year forward Brandon Beard.

“This was my first experience playing outside,” said Beard, a native of Apopka, Fla. “Just walking out there in warm ups, seeing the sky, seeing the sun go down after the first period, it was pretty special.”

Yellowstone coach Tom Maroste said that Beard was not alone. The majority of his players, who hail from a dozen states as well as Norway, have never set foot on an outdoor rink.

“I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was and how great these people who are that are pushing to grow hockey in this town,” said Maroste, who grew up playing outside in northern Minnesota. “It’s fantastic.”

With a rink renovation on the horizon, this Winter Classic closed the book on outdoor hockey in Sheridan, something everyone involved sees as an acceptable loss. Progress trumps nostalgia when it comes to hockey’s future.

“We’re sharing the passion with a lot of folks right now who are learning to play for the first time, and it keeps growing,” Garstad said. “It’s a great opportunity for us who have a hockey background, and there are a lot of people who are understanding why we love it so much.”

Brad Estes is a freelance writer who calls Sheridan, Wyo., home.

 

Photos By Dennis Jacobs and Bill Cooley 
Issue: 
2015-02

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