DARBY – Skating rink regulars here dejectedly contemplated a pool of slushy glop after early January’s rains, more apt for making refreshing summertime drinks than for pirouettes or hockey. For most of this winter, however, the community rink has been in good condition, and when winter’s cold returns, the rink will once again be fit for gliding, sliding, and winter sports.
That’s all thanks to a group of people who, six years ago, took a good idea and encased it in ice.
Ronda Lang recalls that the impetus was a long winter break from school, with sub-zero temperatures, and an outbreak of cabin fever imminent. She, her husband Jeff, and others began to ask where they might put a skating rink, eventually winning approval from the Darby school district to locate it on school grounds, near the baseball fields and behind Peoples Market.
As Lang recalls it, “Jim Heiland showed up with a backhoe [to excavate and level an area]. Then,” Lang said, “we’d wait for the ground to freeze, and throw water on it.
“It was hit-or-miss,” she admitted.
Two years ago, however, the Darby skaters got more serious about developing the rink. The loosely-organized group obtained key donations from the Darby Schools Excellence Fund and the Horizons Program, as well as numerous individuals. Heiland came back, reinforced by excavators Dean Ehmann, Kent Niles, and Jeff Lang, and they were able to smooth out an area big enough for a hockey rink, 80 by 100 feet, cover it with sand, and put down a liner, greatly cutting back on the maintenance of the rink.
Lang credited Rick Scheele, who’s been involved with the rink from the start, with spearheading the liner installation.
She said the ice now remains in good condition as long as daytime temperatures remain at 35 degrees or below. Generally, the rink is usable about 60 percent of the winter, she estimated.
Community support for the rink has snowballed, and a small army of volunteers continues to be involved in maintenance and improvements to the recreation site. Last year, thanks to Darby Distribution, Even Flow Chinking, and JLL Construction, they were able to get plywood barriers built on each end for hockey and broom ball use, and they’re hoping to partner with the Darby High School Construction Technology class to finish enclosing the rink, and perhaps even to build a homemade Zamboni, according to Lang.
Lang thanked the many individuals who have helped with the rink over the years, as well as local businesses.
“This has been such a great community project, and a fun recreational opportunity that is free and open to the public,” she enthused. “We have had so much support, not only from the community, but also from the school and the town of Darby.”
The rink is not attended, but is open for public use any time – there are even lights that can be turned on for after-dark use. The grounds include picnic tables, benches, and a bring-your-own-firewood fire pit, for cheery warming fires.
Skating is at the skater’s own risk and peril, according to posted information.
Thanks to generous donations, the shed adjacent to the rink is stocked with loaner skates, mostly in kids’ sizes. The key to the shed is available for check-out at the Darby Public Library, which is open Tuesdays from 10 a.m. - 7 p.m., Wednesday through Friday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Lang is also often available to open up the shed for youths needing skates.
The shed also houses hockey nets, and shovels for clearing snow from the rink surface, although a crew of volunteers tries to keep up with that chore.
Lang would welcome further donations to augment the stock of loaner skates, particularly more hockey skates in men’s sizes.
Traditions have already arisen around the rink, including a winter solstice party, and the upcoming broomball tournament, the fourth annual event, according to organizer Christina Harrell.
Broomball mimics ice hockey, but players wear shoes or boots in place of skates, use a ball similar to a softball, and in place of hockey sticks, use brooms wrapped in duct tape. Brooms will be checked for compliance with regulations, Harrell warned.
Last year’s tournament attracted five teams, from Missoula to Darby. Anyone interested in putting a team together should contact Harrell at 239-0546. A competitive spirit is good, she suggested, but a determination to have fun is obligatory.
“I don’t think they put a whole lot of practice in,” she wryly observed. Each team consists of six players, though she recommended having a couple of subs in reserve. Most players are male, but women are welcome, and women who want to participate but not play may be drafted as referees. Intimate familiarity with the official rules is not a prerequisite.
“Nobody can embellish an event like Christina,” laughed Kate Duggan, another of the myriad volunteers who keep the rink running. “You want to see a really top event, it’s just a pure community grassroots effort.”
Players are required to wear a helmet, but any kind of helmet will do.
The first teams will face off at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 1, and depending on the number of teams, will probably be done by 6 p.m. The entry fee is $60 per team, and the proceeds will go toward maintenance and improvements for the rink.
With any luck, temperatures will soon slide back down below freezing, and the sound of blades scraping ice will mix with laughter and shouts at the focal point of Darby’s winter recreation.
Information on the rink is available on the group’s Facebook page, Darby Ice Rink. For more information or to volunteer to help, call Lang at (406) 370-5771.