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Billings Bighorns vs. Medicine Hat Tigers, January 1978

The Calgary Centennials of the major junior Western Hockey League relocated to Billings in 1977, becoming the Billings Bighorns. A committee advising the MetraPark board recommends studying the soil beneath Rimrock Auto Arena to determine the level of contamination before moving toward attracting a minor league hockey franchise to locate in Billings.

BILLINGS — A committee is advising a go-slow approach before recommending upgrading Rimrock Auto Arena to include ice for hockey and traveling ice shows.

Ice-making startup costs are nearly $3.2 million plus at least $540,000 for offices, locker and training rooms to lure an East Coast Hockey League team to play in Billings. That's according to a recent analysis completed by the Yellowstone County Finance Department that was considered Wednesday by the MetraPark Advisory Board’s ad-hoc hockey feasibility committee. The board ultimately advises county commissioners.

Revenue estimates show MetraPark losing about $155,000 annually hosting a minor league hockey franchise, but the estimate includes nearly $238,000 that hockey fans’ ticket purchases would add each year to MetraPark’s capital improvement fund. That total was not included in the revenue forecast.

Finance Director Kevan Bryan said the department “does not believe that Metra is in a position to lose money on such an endeavor, nor do we support that.”

According to the analysis, other factors complicate adding hockey and such touring shows as "Disney on Ice" and "Sesame Street Live" to the MetraPark mix:

  • Before the arena floor is dug out to construct an ice plant beneath the surface, the soil would have to be declared free of contaminants. Committee members said they support the county seeking a request for proposals to study the level of brownfield remediation that would be required.
  • A number of groups with long-standing events at MetraPark would be affected if Exhibit Hall space were designated for hockey. Those include the NILE trade show, hospitality during the Chase Hawks Roughstock Rodeo, all-class wrestling, divisional and state basketball tournaments, the NAIA women's basketball tournament, Professional Bull Riding’s hospitality offerings, and youth art displayed during MontanaFair.
  • The hockey schedule itself would compete with other winter athletics that use the venue, including basketball, wrestling and rodeo events. Bryan said minor league hockey squads are used to going on the road for weeks at a time, and that the arena’s schedule “can definitely accommodate the dates envisioned for hockey.”
  • While the Finance Department analysis assumes average attendance at 2,500, Bryan said that depending on the quality of the team that locates in Billings, attendance could be far below that. East Coast Hockey League franchises in the region draw slightly better, said Ray Massie, MetraPark’s marketing and sales director: The Rapid City Rush drew about 3,000 per game during the 2017-18 season, while the Idaho Steelheads attracted about 4,500 fans to each contest.

“If you are putting in ice to support (just) a hockey team, I don’t see how that makes any sense at all,” Bryan told committee members and others intrigued by the thought of attracting a hockey franchise, including Billings hoteliers and Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings.

But putting ice in the facility without the sole goal of attracting a hockey franchise “is another discussion,” he said, “and it’s not up to Finance to decide that.”

Committee members agreed that having a financial analysis completed if and when the owners of minor league hockey franchises come calling will be helpful.

“We are going to recommend looking at a request for proposal for soil contaminants,” said committee chair Lyle Hill. “Then we’ll worry about next steps.”

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