LAS VEGAS — Members of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights are scheduled to make a summer caravan stop at Centennial Ice Arena in Billings on Tuesday.
A hockey clinic will be held beginning at 10 a.m. According to a team spokesperson, defenseman Jake Bischoff, athletic trainer Mike Muir, Golden Knights play-by-play announcer Dave Goucher and club mascot Chance are scheduled to be in Billings as part of the caravan.
Muir has local ties, having previously worked as an athletic trainer for the now-defunct Billings Bulls Junior A hockey club.
The Golden Knights group, with other various players and personalities, will also make stops in Idaho Falls, Idaho; Casper, Wyoming; Park City, Utah; and St. George, Utah.
The stop in Casper, with forward Cody Glass, defenseman Nic Hauge and broadcaster Gary Lawless, is scheduled for Wednesday at the Casper Ice Arena beginning at 9 a.m.
Photos: A visual history of hockey in Billings
Public skating at the Metra, December 1975
existed in Billings before the 1970s, but the sport's popularity got a major boost when ice-making equipment became available in the city. In a letter published in the Billings Gazette in 1974 promoting the construction of the Metra, Yellowstone County commissioners promised "a new dimension of youth recreation and competition" for ice hockey as one of the benefits for the arena. Hockey was the first sport to be played in the then-new arena, beating high school basketball by just a few days.
Outdoor ice rink construction, November 1975
For years, naturally-frozen ice at public parks and on nearby bodies of water provided the only skating surfaces in town. An outdoor rink known as Volunteer Ice Arena (later renamed to Arena West) was created off King Avenue West by the Billings Amateur Hockey League, allowing a consistent, regulation-sized playing surface for youth and club hockey teams. The rink took two years to complete.
Billings Blazers home opener vs. Albuquerque Chaparrals, Dec. 17, 1975
The completion of the Metra brought along with it Billings' first hockey team, the Billings Blazers of the minor-league Southwest Hockey League. The Blazers were among the SWHL's original teams, which included franchises in New Mexico, Texas and Nevada as well as a second Montana team, the Butte Copper Kings. Above, Blazers goalie Buzzy Sheain blocks a shot from an Albuquerque Chaparrals player during the Blazers' home opener at the Metra on Dec. 17, 1976. The Chaps won, 7-5, but the Blazers won the following night 4-1.
West High Wranglers hockey team, February 1976
While youth league play was available for a fee at the Metra after its completion in December 1975, youth hockey didn't find its own home in Billings until the completion of Volunteer Ice Arena in 1977. In the meantime, some local kids got their hockey fix by playing "sandlot hockey" wherever they could find open ice. In this 1976 photo, members of the unofficial West High Wranglers team pose for a photo near their makeshift rink — labeled "Midland Memorial Outdoor Stadium" by Gazette reporter Flynn Ell — at the now-defunct Midland Materials gravel pits at the corner of King Avenue West and 24th Street West. A movie screen from the Sage Drive-In theater can be seen in the background.
Billings Blazers vs. Albuquerque Chaparrals, 1976
The Southwest Hockey League was founded by the highly-controversial Las Vegas hotel owner Ralph Engelstad, whose celebrations of Adolph Hitler's birthday and Nazi memorabilia collection brought him media attention in the late 1980s. Many professional players at the time still didn't wear helmets, allowing some of the hockey-est of hockey hair to flow freely.
Sandy Bain, Billings Blazers, February 1976
Billings Blazers forward Sandy Bain stands in the team's locker room at the Metra in February 1976. According to the limited statistics available for the Blazers at
HockeyDB.com, a hockey statistics website, Bain was among the team's top scorers in its inaugural season.
Billings Blazers vs. Butte Copper Kings, April 5, 1976
The Southwest Hockey League folded in April 1977 after it was determined that the league was not financially viable, despite new teams in Bismarck, North Dakota and Tucson, Arizona. The Bismarck Capitols lasted just 20 games before money troubles ended their run. The Blazers' average attendance dropped from 3,115 fans per game in their first season to just 1,126 in 1977. In this photo, players from the Butte Copper Kings argue with a referee during a game against the Blazers at the Metra.
Youth hockey at Volunteer Ice Arena, January 1977
By the time the Blazers folded, young hockey fans were finally getting a chance to play organized hockey on their own rink. The outdoor Volunteer Ice Arena, at the corner of King Avenue West (along what is today
Cel Avenue), had its official grand opening on January 22, 1977. The rink was created by the Billings Amateur Hockey League using $150,000 in donated labor and services. It was later renamed to Arena West.
Hockey equipment for sale at Sears, November 1977
Though the Southwest Hockey League disbanded in 1977, it didn't kill the interest of Billings youngsters in the sport of hockey. Here, a Billings youth browses the hockey equipment section at the Sears department store at West Park Plaza during the holiday shopping rush in 1977.
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 Bighorns goalie Tim Thomlinson, March 1978
Billings Bighorns goalie Tim Thomlinson wore a mask painted with the face and horns of a bighorn sheep. Andy Moog, Thomlinson's successor in the Bighorns' net, went on to become a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the NHL's Edmonton Oilers. Moog wore a
well-received mask painted with a roaring bear's face during his time with the Boston Bruins.
Billings Bighorns locker room, 1978
Members of the Billings Bighorns congregate in their locker room at the Metra in January 1978.
Billings Bighorns vs. Lethbridge Broncos, January 1978
The Bighorns' first season proved to be their most successful. The team made it to the league finals before being swept in four games by the New Westminster (British Columbia) Bruins. Here, Bighorns players battle with members of the Lethbridge Broncos.
Billings Bighorns players in Cooperall uniforms, January 1981
In 1981, the Bighorns adopted Cooperall uniforms, which included full-leg pants. The uniforms were popular in the 1980s among both junior and professional teams but fell out of fashion by the 1990s, in large part due to criticisms of both their functionality and durability. Ironically, the Kamloops Blazers, previously the New Westminster Bruins that beat the Bighorns in the 1978 WCHL finals, wore similar long-pants uniforms for one game in 2016 (although the pants were not made under the Cooper brand).
Billings Bighorns vs. Lethbridge Broncos, March 1978
The Western Canadian Hockey League was renamed to the Western Hockey League in 1978 following the Billings Bighorns' first season. The Bighorns relocated to Nanaimo, British Columbia in 1982 to become the Nanaimo Islanders. After one season in Nanaimo, the franchise relocated again, becoming the second iteration of the New Westminster Bruins. The franchise lives on today in Kennewick, Washington as the WHL's Tri-City Americans.
Andy Moog with Billings schoolchildren, 1983
Despite being a major junior league team aimed at developing young players, the Billings Bighorns produced a handful of notable professional players. Included among them are three-time Stanley Cup winning goalie Andy Moog (shown above with Billings schoolkids in 1983), who ranks 17th on the list of goalies with the most NHL wins, with 372 games won. Other Stanley Cup winners from the Bighorns included Pat Conacher, Pokey Reddick and Mark Lamb (all of which, like Moog, won titles with the Edmonton Oilers), as well as Bob Rouse, who helped the Detroit Red Wings to championships in 1997 and 1998, and is the only Bighorns alumnus to have played more than 1,000 career games in the NHL. Other notable alumni include Gord Kluzak, who was the first overall pick in the 1982 NHL entry draft, and Randy Moller, who is notable both for being on the cover of EA Sports' "NHLPA Hockey '93" video game and for his current job as play-by-play announcer for the NHL's Florida Panthers, where he
injects pop culture references after Panthers goals.
Montana Magic players, September 1983
The departure of the Billings Bighorns left the ice at the Metra without a team, but it didn't take long for a new squad to lace up the skates. The Montana Magic, named for Billings' nickname "The Magic City," joined the minor league-level Central Hockey League in 1983. The team shared NHL associations with the St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers. Notable players included Stan Weir and Blair MacDonald, both of whom played alongside a young Wayne Gretzky after he was picked up by the Oilers. Two Magic players are among the only 44 players in NHL history to score five goals or more in a game: Reggie Leach (Philadelphia Flyers) and Don Murdoch (New York Rangers). Leach was a Conn Smythe Trophy winner in the 1976 Stanley Cup playoffs, although his Flyers team lost to the Montreal Canadiens, making him the only non-goalie to ever win the MVP award while on the losing team. Alain Lemieux, older brother of Hockey Hall of Fame member Mario Lemieux, was also a member of the Magic roster.
Reggie Leach in Montana Magic uniform, 1983
Reggie "The Rifle" Leach was nearing the end of his professional career when he landed with the Montana Magic in 1983. Leach was the NHL's scoring leader in 1976, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy the same year. His 61 goals in the 1975-1976 regular season rank 31st all time in goal scoring in a single NHL season, and his 19 goals in the 1976 playoffs are
an NHL record. Only 15 players have scored more goals in a season. Leach is often named as one of the best players to have yet to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. After playing 76 games for the Magic, Leach retired from playing in 1984.
Montana Magic vs. Salt Lake Golden Eagles, March 11, 1984
The Montana Magic and its parent league, the Central Hockey League, were owned by the NHL. Billings was the final city added to the league before it folded in 1984. Five teams competed in the 1983-1984 season: The Magic (formerly the Wichita Wind, affiliated with the Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis Blues), the Colorado Flames (affiliated with the Calgary Flames), the Indianapolis Checkers (affiliated with the New York Islanders), the Tulsa Oilers (ironically, not affiliated with the Edmonton Oilers, but rather the Toronto Maple Leafs) and the Salt Lake Golden Eagles (shown above, affiliated with the Minnesota North Stars).
Centennial Ice Arena construction, October 1982
Centennial Ice Arena, so named because its construction coincided with the 100th anniversary of Billings' incorporation as a city, was constructed in 1982 on Bench Boulevard as a replacement for the outdoor Arena West rink on King Avenue West. Later plans to build other rinks in Billings have never been carried out, and Centennial remains the city's only hockey rink.
Pee Wee hockey at Centennial Ice Arena, April 1984
Youth hockey continued to gain popularity in the early 1980s, spurred in part by the "Miracle on Ice" during the 1980 Winter Olympics, in which the United States defeated the heavily-favored Soviet Union and went on to become gold medalists. The national surge in hockey interest, paired with the opening of two hockey-capable venues in Billings, led many local kids to join teams.
Billings Marlboros vs. Troy Sabres, December 1985
After one season without hockey at the Metra, the semi-professional Continental Hockey League brought to Billings what is perhaps the least well-known team in the city's history. The Billings Marlboros played just one season before the CHL folded in 1986.
Billings Bulls tryouts, September 1993
Seven years after the Billings Marlboros disbanded, a new team took to the ice at the Metra. The Billings Bulls were one of the founding teams of the Tier II Junior A American Frontier Hockey League (later renamed to the America West Hockey League). The team first held tryouts at Centennial Ice Arena in September 1993. The AFHL consisted of players aged 16 to 19, and originally included teams from Colorado, Utah, North Dakota and Wyoming in addition to the Bulls. More Montana teams were later added in Helena, Bozeman, Butte and Great Falls, through both expansion and relocation of existing teams.
Billings Bulls vs. Casper Drillers, September 16, 1993
The Bulls made their Billings debut during a preseason exhibition game against the Casper Drillers (later known as the Casper Wranglers) on September 18, 1993 at Centennial Ice Arena. The Bulls secured an agreement to play their regular season games at the Metra, with team president Eric Bonanno calling the arena the "finest facility in all of junior hockey."
Billings Bulls vs. Spokane
The Bulls hit the Metra ice for the first time in an exhibition game against the Spokane Braves of the Kootenay International Hockey League on October 2, 1993. The game included an appearance by the famous
San Diego Chicken mascot. The Bulls opened their first official hockey season four days later with a 7-5 home win over the Bismarck Express (later the Bismarck Bullets). The 1993-1994 Bulls went on to win the AFHL's first league championship trophy, the Borne Cup. The team won four more consecutive championships between 1996 and 1999.
Billings Bulls former co-owner Al Bloomer, January 2005
The Billings Bulls had the most success of any team in the AFHL/AWHL before the league merged with the North American Hockey League in 2003. The Bulls were regular season champions for the West Division in their first season with the NAHL, but never found the same success again. The Bulls joined the Tier III Northern Pacific Hockey League in 2006, after uncertainty surrounding the team following a breakdown of negotiations with Yellowstone County over use of the Metra, forcing the Bulls to move to Centennial Ice Arena.
Billings Bulls vs. Helena Bighorns, November 2007
The Bulls remained in the Northern Pacific Hockey League until 2011, when they joined the American West Hockey League (not to be confused with the earlier AWHL that the Bulls were also a part of) along with teams from Helena, Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls and Gillette, Wyoming. The league merged with the NA3HL in 2014, where the Bulls remained until going dormant in 2017. Team owners hope to resurrect the Bulls for the 2018-2019 season.
Billings Junior Bulls U8 team
Despite the lack of a professional or minor league team in Billings, there remains a large number of dedicated hockey fans. Centennial Ice Arena is home to numerous
youth teams ranging from ages five to 18, and hosts several adult leagues.
Billings Junior Bulls U8 hockey
While youth and adult league hockey are hosted at Centennial Ice Arena, there remains a number of Billings hockey fans who hope to see the sport gain the same popularity it had from the 1970s to the 1990s. An
online petition and Facebook page have recently circulated in an attempt to bring a new professional hockey team to the Magic City, encouraging hockey fans to show their support.