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Late Wednesday afternoon a trio of skaters took to the Florence ice rink to do a little extra skating ahead of this weekend's second annual Florence Outdoor 3v3 Hockey tournament.

The extra practice didn't hurt, but the guys might have been there anyway — the free-to-use second-year rink is a blessing for area skaters searching for ice.

"It's kind of nice, because the Missoula rinks are getting a little crowded as far as ice time with two sheets," Josh Woodard said Wednesday, taking a break from a loose practice with his two other teammates for the weekend tournament. "It's nice to have a little piece of ice you can kind of come down here and skate on. It's not super crowded, but it's still getting used and it's maintained.

"It means a lot to us."

The trek to Missoula and the crowds on the ice is exactly why Chris Kovatch decided he wanted to put in an ice rink at Florence's Hideout Mountain park last winter. 

Kovatch, who moved to Florence from Missoula last year in June, put a proposal together and went to the park board, which freed up some funds to buy the rink. Kovatch and other volunteers help maintain the rink.

"More or less I didn't want to drive into Missoula all the time to play hockey," Kovatch deadpanned. "...The biggest way we were able to sell it to the park was, essentially this was a nine month park. Even if this surface is good for six to eight weeks, we're still pushing out almost a year-round use for the park. It's been awesome for the park."

Last winter, the rink's first in existence, the ice was placed overtop the tennis court at the park. This year, the rink sits in the same location, but the court below it was removed, as it had to be regraded and flattened.

According to Kovatch, the rink had 17 inches of ice on one side and four on the other last winter. This year, it's a perfect four to five inches all the way around.

"Last year, shoot, we had to pour 80,000 gallons of water," Kovatch said. "This year the park let us tear up (the court) and we still probably used 18,000 gallons of water, but we made it 25 percent bigger."

The rink, which is 52 feet by 96 feet, has become quite the community attraction. Lights are installed around the chainlink fence that surrounds the rink, allowing for night skating. There's a fire pit, and Florence's Finlay Lumber has donated firewood for people to use.

"I counted consistently 20ish people there," Kovatch said. "I went over there at 9 p.m. (the other night) because I was going to flood it and resurface it and, gosh, there were still 20 people over there."

Even more exciting, the rink offers ice skates to use for free with an access code. Kovatch said people can contact him via message on the Florence Montana Outdoor Ice Rink Facebook page. The skates are stored in a lockbox at the Hideout Mountain water park's pump house. About 50 skates were donated to the rink from Missoula's Glacier Ice Rink last winter.

The Florence community has treated it with respect too, according to Kovatch. The rink is set up with shovels so skaters can scrape off their excess ice after skating. For the most part, people have remembered to remove the pucks and nets after skating. 

Forgetting to do so can create some difficulties.

"They'll actually melt into the ice," Kovatch said. "Somebody left a puck on the north end and it actually burned a hole all the way through the ice and it's sitting on the bottom of the liner."

The ice has been pretty solid as of late, though. A recent cold snap over the holidays really helped, according to Kovatch. 

With lows expected in the high teens and low 20s this weekend, the ice should be solid for the second-annual tournament as well.

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The eight-team tournament starts Friday at 7:30 p.m. The proceeds from the tournament go to pay for a new rink liner and other rink improvements, according to Kovatch. Winners will take home a stylish "trophy" — an insulated drink tumbler with the rink's logo on it.

The tournament is family friendly according to Woodard, who competed in the tournament last year, as the rink sits in the shadow of the Hideout Mountain playground.

"It was fun last year, we had some fires going and had lots of kids running around. It's a good time," Woodard said.

On Saturday, games start early and take a five hour break midday to alleviate soft-ice conditions and allow for skaters to travel the Bitterroot and patronize some of the area businesses. The tourney concludes on Sunday and spectators are encouraged.

"It's more or less a fundraiser for the rink," Kovatch said.

But that doesn't mean the skaters won't be taking it somewhat seriously. The trio on Wednesday was out there getting some extra reps after all.

"We were like middle of the pack last year, maybe fourth or fifth," Woodard said. "But (this year) we're going to give 'er hell."

For information on the rink, visit the Florence Montana Outdoor Ice Rink Facebook page.

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