Call it a most fitting reflection, so to speak, regarding Armstrong County’s long-revered skating rink, which opened on Sunday, Nov. 26, 1967.
Like so many parents in the county, and beyond, the late Ray Boarts fell in love with what today is known as the Belmont Complex watching his kids and others cut the ice there while playing competitive youth hockey or simply pirouetting during public events.
In observance of Saturday’s slated celebration to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the founding of the facility in East Franklin Township, Belmont Sports Complex Executive Director Gary Montebell pointed to Mr. Boarts as having been a key figure in assuring the sustenance and the ultimate survival of the East Franklin Township site well into the 21st century.
As a Belmont parent and proprietor of Paul’s Auto Parts in Kittanning Borough, Boarts stepped up in 1979 and formed the Armstrong County Recreation Authority (ACRA), to which the Belmont was sold with the assistance of the county.
“I cannot understate the impact of that. That was huge,” Montebell said. “He networked and he knew a lot of influential people in the community, and he made it happen.”
Around that time, the late Hugo Montebell, Belmont’s founder and Gary’s father, had been presented opportunities to sell the complex to entities planning to use it for activities other than recreation.
“But Dad didn’t want that,” Gary said. “Financially, it was never a big return-on-investment kind of proposition. But in terms of helping people and giving back to the community, he had a lot of support from his friends that saw his vision and believed in it.”
Following the work of ACRA board Chairman Boarts and the county, late U.S. Rep. John Murtha (D-Johnstown) procured the money necessary to purchase the complex in 1979, he added.
In 1985, the operation of the complex was turned over to the county.
Through the years since then, Gary said, the county has maintained ownership of the complex — and it has grown and evolved with time.
“Now that the county owns it, we still have people like (Amateur Armstrong Hockey League (AAHL) President) Jim Rearick and (Freeport Association President) Sarah Suwan and Lee Grafton, who is a hockey director for the amateur league — those people really help keep the dream alive,” Gary said.
The Belmont Complex and AAHL on Saturday will play host to the all-day event to highlight the week of celebrating the facility’s 55th anniversary.
The festivities will carry forth through Nov. 21 with a public skate at noon that day.
Saturday’s schedule includes seven games to be played, starting at 7 a.m. until the last game starting at 6 p.m.
Admission is free and those interested can register to win ice and pool prizes.
Throughout the week, the celebratory status there has featured food trucks, giveaways and special guests.
In appreciation of patrons’ support through the years, the Belmont this week has also been offering discounts on public skating and the skate and shoot events.
Seven-game schedule with special guests puck drop
The Armstrong Arrows will be hosting seven games Saturday, with pre-game puck drop ceremonies from local public figures.
The lineup of games (and pre-game puck drop dignitaries) is as follows:
- North Pittsburgh vs. Arrows 16U at 7 a.m. — Puck dropper — Frank Franceschi, who started to volunteer his time at the Belmont in 1968. He was able and willing to do whatever needed done and also drove the Zamboni for several Years. His wife, Chuckie also worked at Monty’s Freezer Fresh. Frank has been a lifelong resident. His sons played and now he continues to watch his grandchildren and now great grandchildren play hockey.
- Beaver County vs. Arrows 12U at 8:45 a.m. — Puck dropper — Larry Montebell, who started to play in 1967. In 1968, he started as an official until he retired in 2018. In 2003, the Girls 19u team was formed after Dan Ender’s daughters (Erica and Danielle) and Larry’s daughters (Jenna and Lauren) wanted to play ice hockey. Larry is still coaching today at the 8u level.
- Wheeling Nailers vs. Arrows 12U at 10:05 a.m. — Puck dropper — Donnie Zack, who started playing in the AAHL in 1968 and was on the 1st Freeport High school team, coached by his dad, Don Sr., which was started in 1972/73 season, the same as the Armstrong Arrows. Don’s four sons played hockey as well from amateur to the college level.
- Westmoreland County vs. Girls 14U at 11:25 a.m. — Puck dropper — Dave Crain and possibly John R. Wilson III, who in 1987 created the new program at the Belmont that emphasized skating dynamics, hockey skills and a reward of short game competition until 1992. That balance of training provided a high learn quotient for “all” skaters (boys and girls) all finishing their time in the IHL (In House League) to be ready for higher level hockey programs and to plant the seed for the next generation of coaches. Two local standouts from this system were: Jamie King of Kittanning, who exceeded his amateur and high school talent to play NCAA Division 1 hockey at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa.; and Jason Crain of Natrona Heights, who played Canadian junior hockey, then captained the 2002 Ohio State Hockey Buckeyes — another D1 program — before being drafted 74th in the 1999 NHL draft by the Los Angeles Kings, when NHL legend Bobby Orr was his agent. Dave’s other son, Mike, played for the Mt. Lebanon AAA Midget Hornets playing in the Michigan National Hockey League. They won the prestigious Canadian Silver Stick tournament in 1999. They were only the sixth US team to win this title in more than 125 years. All three both pay it back by coaching as they continue to pass the torch to new players — just as Dave Crain and JR Wilson III had planned. Without the Belmont Arena and the Montebell family there would be no great memories and stories. It all started here in Kittanning where John R. Wilson would say: “If you put a kid on ice, he’ll seldom be in hot water!!”
- Pittsburgh Wildcats vs. Girls 19U at 12:45 p.m. — Puck dropper — PA State Sen. Joe Pittman (R-41), who, along with retired PA State Sen. Senator Don White, have been very helpful with funding throughout the years.
- Arctic Foxes vs. Arrows 18U at 4:10 p.m. — Puck dropper — Armstrong County Commissioner Chairman Don Myers, whose efforts to support the future of the Belmont are ongoing with his fellow county commissioners Jason Renshaw, the board’s vice chairman, and Pat Fabian, its secretary.
- Wheeling Nailers vs. Arrows 14U at 6 p.m. — Puck dropper — Jon Spangler, who started the AAHL in 1967 after showing up for a work assignment with the telephone company. Jon was instrumental in getting his players to compete at a high skill level in a short period of time.
Background of the Belmont
The following is an excerpt from an article published in the Nov. 13, 2017, edition of the Leader Times, a portion of which detailed the genesis and evolution of the Belmont Complex from its early days onward:
It seemed like a practical chance to take at the time.
The winterized air had just solidified the water into hard, slick ice at West Kittanning’s Mon Shan Pool in the waning days of 1963.
At the time, the late Hugo Charles Montebell, original proprietor of the facility, decided to shovel a crusty blanket of freshly fallen, ivory snow from the slippery surface and invite the community out for some ice skating.
“When he put the pool in, the winters were colder then. We’d have bonfires. He’s looking around saying, ‘Geez, we don’t have anything for kids to do in the winter, and there are no big halls for events, and Pittsburgh was an hour-and-a-half drive away. So the first night we had it, we were packed,” said Gary, who along with elder brother Tom is one of Hugo’s two sons.
Gary was 5 when the pool opened in 1960.
Eventually, the community skate nights became a tradition.
Before long, the ever-enterprising Hugo Montebell started thinking about the bigger picture.
“About 1963 or 1964, we went to look at the rink at Rostraver Ice Garden, and by 1964 or 1965, he made calls about a design,” Gary said.
Eventually, Hugo Montebell stood not far from the site of the pool with a banker and made a prophetic statement.
“My dad said to that banker, ‘The sport of the future is hockey, and this is where center ice is going to be.’ That banker just laughed,” Gary said.
Nevertheless, by 1967, Hugo and wife, the late Anne Montebell, had built what today still stands as the Belmont Complex, which Gary serves as executive director.
Effective Nov. 26 of that long-ago year, the facility took on its place as a fixture for local recreation and entertainment spanning the seasons for those both near and far, from winter sports like ice hockey and figure skating to fun spring and summer activities like soaking in the pool.
The venue once even served as a stage for music icons Tiny Tim and Bob Seger, and to this day it represents a regular scene for numerous civic and community functions related to non-profit causes and to settings for dialogue involving governmental figures and law enforcement officials, celebrities and even noted religious leaders.
“We had Bishop (Fulton J.) Sheen speak here one time,” Gary said.
Tom Montebell, a resident of Middletown, Md., also shared his perspective on the complex’s legacy, and the quality of its ice.
“That was one thing all the teams, all the coaches always said, ‘They always had the best ice surface at the Belmont,’” he said. “It’s a long time for an enterprise to be operating in a small community, there aren’t many in communities the size of Kittanning that have a complex like that,” he said. “I just remember my father saying hockey was going to be one of the sports of the future. A lot of people helped over the years with making the Belmont Complex what it is today.”
Long prior to the creation of what eventually became the Belmont Complex, the Montebells had begun transforming their 44-acre, family farm at the site into other forms of enterprise, including Monty’s Freezer Fresh, which opened in 1954, followed six years later by the Mon Shan Pool, which was named for the Montebells as well as architect Bruce Shannon. The other 22 acres became Twin Lakes Golf Course, owned by Hugo’s brother, Ed.
“Many adults today have fond memories of their youth spent at Monty’s Freezer Fresh and the Mon Shan Pool,” Gary said.
Throughout its years of existence, the Belmont Complex has gone from one of four ice skating/ice hockey facilities in the region to what today Gary estimates as being one of more than 40 such “sheets,” as he calls them, within an hour-and-a-half drive of Kittanning.
Despite the growth in popularity of such settings throughout the area, Gary said, the Belmont Complex continues to provide recreation and entertainment to thousands of children and adults on an annual basis.
“For our public skates, we get 200-300 kids every Friday night from October through March,” he said. “There’s been a base of that for years … no other rink in the region gets that.”
Then came the aforementioned effort by Mr. Boarts and the ACRA, the county and late Congressman Murtha to buy the Belmont at the end of the 1970s.
“They thought it was a valuable asset to the kids and the families in the community, because there wasn’t a lot going on in the way of business in the community,” Gary said. “There were a lot of influential people that really believed in what was going on.
In the four following years after the county’s 1985 purchase of the Belmont, the facility received several grants to renovate the ice arena, including the ice surface sub floor, refrigerated floor and new refrigeration system.
Initially, the rink was 85- by-185 feet with a smaller surface of 30-by-65 feet.
The aforementioned upgrades brought it to a regulation size of 85-by-200 feet and provided new, skate-resistant matting, along with restroom renovations and a second-floor addition with a meeting room in 1979.
Since 2009, more than $3 million have been used to upgrade the facility’s dasherboard system, refurbish the refrigeration system, install more energy efficient lighting, dehumidification and new skate resistant matting and upgrade two locker rooms.
In addition, the front of the arena was removed and new restrooms, a party room and viewing area, along with a new, American Disabilities Act-accessible ramp were installed.
The skate shop and concession were moved to ice level.
“As a county facility, we strive to keep prices to a minimum at the pool and arena for the youth, family and senior citizens of our community,” Gary said. “Sports camps have been added during the summer months in addition to our various swimming programs.”
The site also served as scene for the Alle Kiski Strong Chamber of Commerce’s home and garden show in the facility’s arena.
Gary also noted the contributions of now-retired PA State Sen. Don White, who also successfully procured funding to support it throughout his time of elected public service.
Since the facility’s 50th anniversary, completed upgrades there include Phase IV of development to the arena, which involved installation of a women’s locker and restroom / shower area.
It was completed in August 2018.
Looking ahead, Gary said the county has applied for an approximately $300,000 grant via the county’s Multi-Use Outdoor Recreational Entertainment (MORE) program to the state department of conservation and natural resources (DCNR) for the potential installation of a dek hockey rink at the Belmont.
“We’re looking at different things for the pool. The pool hasn’t had anything done to it since 1996, and until improvements are made to get it up to the times, you need other activities. So the dek hockey’s a start. Pickleball’s a huge thing these days. It’s just a matter of getting the master plan done, getting the site plan evaluated, then getting the vision down in writing and going out and finding the money. That’s kind of where we’re at, and I’m psyched to be a part of it.”
The county also recently submitted an application for a $1 million grant via the state’s casino revenue fund for rehabilitation of the pool at the Belmont Complex.
“It would be a smaller pool that would still have the lanes for the swim team. But there is not as many people that use the pool like they used to. That would make it more economically feasible to have one that meets the needs, but isn’t in excess like the one we already have, and would require less maintenance and less repairs,” county Commissioner Chairman Myers said. “It would also give us room for the splash pad, which is very low maintenance, but is really very neat for kids, and it would be something to attract new people. So we’re hoping it all works out with the grants to keep this place going. It’s been a staple in this community for 55 years.”
At the time of the 50th anniversary, Gary said they’d been trying to pitch that the Belmont is not just a local when pursuing such funding.
“We bring people from out of county to support our local businesses,” he said at the time, adding that hockey players travel from as far as Canada and across the United States to compete at Belmont.
County Commissioner Chairman Myers specified that Belmont is improving every year in the quest to become an entity completely independent from county financial support.
“The goal is to get it to where it sustains itself,” he said. “The hockey element there has been self-supporting all this time. Gary’s done a great job. I don’t think you could have a better director than Gary.”
Regarding the pursuit of grant funding for the dek hockey rink, it would create for yet another attraction for those involved in competitive youth ice hockey during the offseason.
“I’ve always been a big supporter of youth sports and athletics, it’s some of the best things for young people to be involved with. It’s a positive,” county Commissioner Chairman Myers said. “And the Belmont is one of few things that we have in the county that gives things to the people. If you get it to where it’s self-sustaining, that’s not a burden to the taxpayers.”
Getting through the COVID-19 pandemic
Much like any other facility in the state, which thrives off its ability to give the public a place to gather for various attractions, the Belmont felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The facility shut down, as per Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency order, in March 2020, and reopened in mid-June of that year under numerous restrictions.
“The league put an edict out that we couldn’t really have any fans at the rink. As far as practices, kids were dropped off and we really didn’t have locker rooms going on. Then they eased the restrictions a bit and parents were allowed to come in to (watch) the games. Everybody pretty much abided by it,” Gary said.
Looking at generations ahead
Where it was noted in the 50th anniversary article that the elder son of Gary and Lisa Montebell, then 22-year-old Trey Montebell, was noted to have once been a child participant in the Belmont’s Learn to Skate program and In-House Hockey program several years ago.
Today, Trey, now 27, and his wife Kimber live in Plum and enjoy spending time together at weekend public skate sessions when possible. The couple has a 5-year-old daughter, Lyla, and her younger siblings, daughter Ariella, 18 months; and son Abasai Jasper, or A.J., 3 months.
“We have three healthy and happy grandkids,” Gary said. “Lyla’s been to the rink, she hasn’t skated yet, but she’s been to pool.”
Marcus Montebell, the younger son of Gary and Lisa, in 2017 was 10 when he spoke glowingly of his meeting all-world Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby during his involvement a few years back with the National Hockey League superstar’s Little Penguins Learn to Play Hockey practice session at what is now PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
Now a 15-year-old sophomore at Armstrong, Marcus’ athletic focus has shifted from soccer to golf.
“He still likes to skate ... and he’s come down and helped with the hockey program,” Gary said.
These days, former NHL player and Pittsburgh Penguins staff member Rocky Saganiuk periodically helps to coach Little Penguins sessions at the Belmont.
This is the 13th year of the program and we are very fortunate to be part of the Pittsburgh Penguins Learn-To-Play program, which provides new equipment and 10-hour-long sessions for $165.
“Rocky’s all about kids. He’s just a great guy,” Gary said.
The loss of an indispensable part of the Belmont’s legacy came with the death of Anne Virginia Nasoni Montebell, who died peacefully at the age of 99 on Dec. 21, 2019.
During the 2017 interview, Anne sharp wit and colorful, endearing way became evident as she discussed her beloved Hugo and her pride in his foresight to make the Belmont what it eventually became.
“Hugo couldn’t skate or swim, but he had a vision, and nobody else believed him,” Anne said. “He was a Kittanningite from word one, and he always talked about Kittanning.”
The couple’s daughter, Mary Ann, sister to Gary and Tom, passed away in 1969.
Another loss to the Belmont staff was Jayci Freedlander, who passed away in January of 2022. Jayci was a member of the Arrowettes, the original figure skating team at the Belmont, which changed to the Belmont Blaze. Jayci started to skate in the 1970s, then went on to become a very passionate and exceptional coach at the Belmont until 2016 and at other facilities in the Pittsburgh area. Jayci is sorely missed in the skating community.
In another blow to the Belmont family, staff there mourned the loss of Sue Bono, a Kittanning resident and a longtime ticket booth/skate shop/concession stand staff member there, who died July 10, 2022.
Of Bono, Gary Montebell said: “She spent a lot of time here, before she started to work for us ... she was volunteering here doing different things. And while she was here, she was always trying to help and give back to the community.”
The hockey league has purchased a bench that will be dedicated to Bono’s memory during an upcoming ceremony.
In 2017, Bono, whose grandson Bailey played hockey for many years at the Belmont, was quoted for the 50th anniversary story saying the following about the site: “It’s unbelievable. It’s grown over the years. The rink has changed immensely. There used to be a fire place people could sit beside after they were done skating, and a little ice rink for kids.”
Gary also took time to remember late PA State Rep. Jeff Pyle (R-60), who died at the age of 58 on Sept. 14 after a battle with cancer.
“(Pyle) was always a big supporter of the complex,” he said.
And not to be forgotten, this past summer, Gary organized a 100-year birthday party for Hugo Montebell at the complex on July 30.
“I tried to reach out to as many of his friends as possible, that were still alive, along with hockey people, and we probably had over 150 attend,” he said.
Editor’s note — Those interested in taking part in such activities today through Saturday are encouraged to visit the facility’s website — BelmontComplex.net — to confirm the available times.