HELENA — Kevin Bushnell started playing hockey as a way to understand the game his sons, William and Joseph, participated in. 

Unable to skate when he first began learning the sport, Bushnell gradually learned the nuances of the game participating at the novice level at the Helena Ice Arena.

For Bushnell, learning the game was a fast transition and didn't involve a lot of falling to learn the game and skate simultaneously.

"By the end of the first game, I started to get pretty good and decent enough to stand," Bushnell said. "Last year, I only fell twice."

His story is one of many of how hockey has brought families together in Helena to share the game they love. It's become a bonding experience on ice.

Since starting in the league, Bushnell's love for hockey has grown exponentially.

"Now I can enjoy watching the sport and I even went to two Colorado Avalanche games," Bushnell said. "Knowing the sport makes watching hockey a lot more fun."

Kevin, who skates with his sons and nephews, said there is nothing better than being on the ice with them.

"They just love being able to come out and skate with me more than anything," Bushnell said.

Jim Rice, who was introduced to hockey by his wife, Kelly Sloan, said he has enjoyed participating in the novice league with his wife, who got him into the sport.

When Rice first began learning the sport, he admits the transition was difficult.

"My wife and I were courting back then," Rice said. "We would go out and do some skating with a pair of sticks and skates, and I had a hard time standing up."

Through practice, Rice eventually honed his craft and became more comfortable skating.

"It took lots of practice and playing hockey was a big opportunity," Rice said. "There are people of all skill levels, ideas and tricks, and that is how you learn the best."

Kelly Sloan, who was initially from the upper peninsula of Michigan where hockey is very popular, began skating and learning the sport on ponds and watching her father play.

"There were no rules when we were skating on these little ponds," Sloan said. "I just really enjoyed the feeling of being on the ice, and the freedom of flying up and down the ice."

When Sloan first started playing organized hockey as an adult, it hadn't grown into the popular recreation sport it has become in Helena.

"At the time, hockey wasn't organized," Sloan said. "It was just a bunch of guys who go together. When I first started, I didn't know the rules or anything. I was told 'you can't do this, try this instead.' It didn't take very long to learn the rules, and I eventually played with more confidence, but it took me several years."

A family tradition

Eric Arnold and his sister Erin Huffman have just started participating in hockey together.

The Pennsylvania-born siblings never lost their passion, even when they moved to Townsend.

"Growing up in Townsend, we would watch and play hockey clear in the snow all winter long," Huffman said. "We would watch hockey and play in hockey in the ponds all winter long with friends and family."

Huffman, who is only in her third-ever recreational game, decided to get reacquainted with hockey.

"My daughter is now older and I finally decided to get involved," Huffman said. "It was time to do something for myself."

Arnold, who also has fond memories of playing pond hockey at Indian Creek near Townsend with his sister, now hopes to improve his skillset by playing goalie.

"I learned that I am not very good and playing goalie is a lot harder than it looks," said Arnold, who has played in the Helena Recreational League since 1999-2000. "I enjoy playing because there are a lot of good guys and good camaraderie. By the end of the summer, my wife is ready to kick me out of the house."

Stephanie Reinhardt, whose husband Craig Reinhardt was a player for the Helena Bighorns juniors, decided to get more involved with the game her husband has enjoyed since he was a 5-year-old.

"I've been pushing all of my family members into hockey and encouraging them to learn how to skate," Reinhardt said."For me, I am still learning. It's a lot of time, and it took me a year to learn properly. Skating is like riding a bike. You get better every time you go."

Jimmy Quinlaven plays with his wife Kalisa, who participated in the Helz Belles roller derby team.

"After our son was born, my wife and I wife wanted to do something together, so I got her to start playing hockey," Quinlaven said. "It's fun for both of us to get out."

Quinlaven said he likes teaching his wife a new sport.

"Her first few games, she could barely stand up on the ice and was stressed out," Quinlaven said. "It helps to have me out there so I can encourage her that she is doing things right."

Melinda Ryser, who plays with her twin sister Melanie, got into hockey to learn the sport for her children, Warren and Jakob. Her husband, Dustin Ryser, no longer plays the game.

"My kids are better than me," Ryser said. "I learned a lot about the rules for the game and just part of the game."

Ryser said she felt hockey is the hardest sport she's learned.

"I played athletics at different levels," Ryser said. "I would say that hockey is the hardest sport to learn how to play."

Jason Blasco is the lead prep sports reporter for the Helena Indepedent-Record and a sports reporter for the 406mtsports.com network.

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