Its not just where the Bighorns play. Helena Ice Arena has a lot more to offer than hockey and is currently working to raise awareness of the many activities on offer.
Primary months of operations at the ice rink are between August and April every year. The arena keeps a handful of full-time employees on payroll while hiring 15 or more part-time employees to help round out staff during busy months. When summer comes around, everyone from concessions workers to the ice maintenance crew go elsewhere until the next winter. The business typically keeps only one or two staff during the summer.
In recent years the business has done a bit more in the summer and hired as needed. However, prime business for the venue is the fall and winter.
In addition a robust hockey schedule, the arena offers several public skate options. These are opportunities for the public to come and enjoy the arena for themselves. According to bookkeeper Jaymie Noble, who does much of the arena’s advertising, public skate is something the business hopes to make the public aware of moving forward.
The Helena Ice Arena has served the area for more than 20 years. Manager Stan Senechal originally worked on the building when it was being constructed. He said around 1995 he was working for an engineering company and did much of the building’s mechanical and electrical engineering.
Senechal said Michael Avon, a man from New York, was the one who originally decided Helena needed an ice arena. Through various circumstances, Senechal wound up owning stock in the business. He was an owner of the business for many years before selling to a California businessman.
However, Senechal has never been far from the ice arena, he has remained close and acts as the business manager and primary decision-maker.
Noble said the business can be broken down into a few areas: hockey, public skate, apparel, concessions and ice rentals. She said ice rentals make up the majority of the arena's profits. Nearly anyone can rent the arena space for private or public use. This includes tournaments, youth hockey, junior hockey, birthday parties and any number of other events.
Many rentals are long-time partners with the arena, like the junior hockey league or the Helena Figure Skating Club, which host lessons at the arena.
Apparel and concessions make up a smaller part of the business. Apparel is mostly hockey-related clothing and gear.
The concessions are handled by The Atomic Cafe. The options are fairly robust for a small ice arena. Popcorn, cotton candy and chips are available in addition to burgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, pizza and corn dogs. Nobel said concessions is licensed to sell beer during Bighorns games, but is otherwise G-rated.
The North American 3 Hockey League Bighorns are the arena's biggest draw, but there are also junior and youth hockey leagues, which drum up a lot of public interest. Hockey overall represents a big part of the arena's business.
"Hockey is what people think about when they think about the arena," Nobel said.
The arena has adult pick-up hockey games for anybody who wants to play.
Public skate also is a big part of the arena's business and one where the arena hopes to increase public awareness. Public skate means anybody can come in with their ice skates, or rent a pair of skates, and enjoy the use of a highly controlled environment. This includes regular public skate, events hosted by the public, and laser skate. However, most of the public isn't aware of public skate and the ice arena offerings.
"That's something we are trying to change," Noble said. "We aim to drum up more interest in public skate."
Noble attributes the lack of awareness to advertising. The arena works on a minimal advertising budget with Noble handling most of those duties. She said the business does some radio advertising but relies heavily on social media and word-of-mouth. Nobel believes social media has helped bring in more people, but said her goal is to be more consistent with her advertising.
When April comes around, the Arena starts winding down for the summer. Although this has changed slightly in the past few years.
Last summer the arena hosted some summer activities including roller derby, street hockey and roller-skating. This included renting the arena to the local Hel'z Belles roller-derby team.
Interest was small for street hockey and roller-skating, but this was a first for the arena with many unaware of it happening. Regardless, the arena doesn't lose anything by attempting more summer events. Roller-skates or not, the ice is melted in the spring because it's easier to replace than maintain all summer.
The Helena Ice Arena has long been staple of the Helena community. Through partnerships with local schools, businesses and sports groups, the arena has created a safe environment for weekend activities all fall and winter. With such a wide range of activities at the venue, the arena has something for people of all ages.