HOCKEY Melville style

Skaters take to the ice for fun and competition
Nolan Lister
Thursday, January 10, 2019

Pioneer photo by Nolan Lister
Melville resident Andrew Anderson, center, fires a wrister on goal during a friendly neighborhood hockey game Sunday afternoon on the ranch of the Donald family.

Pioneer photo by Nolan Lister
Members of the Melville community gather on a frozen pond Sunday for a hockey game, carrying on a town tradition dating back to the 1930s.

Pioneer photo by Nolan Lister
Wyatt Donald’s 13-year-old son William skates to the “sideline” during a lull in the action in Sunday’s hockey game in Melville.

Pioneer photo by Nolan Lister
Tony Carroccia smiles from the ice after losing an edge during Sunday’s game between friends and neighbors. The town of Melville boasts a rich history of hockey.

Sunday afternoon on the Donald ranch in Melville, a cadre of neighbors gathered on a frozen pond to skate. The dark grey storm clouds obscuring much of the Crazies and gusts of wind blowing snow across the frozen surface were not enough to deter the 15 or so from lacing them up.

There was no scoreboard, no referee and no Zamboni. The goals were designated by a pair of rubber boots at either end of the ice, and the only spectators of the day’s hockey game were more concerned with their hay.

The players laughed with, congratulated and taunted each other, worrying less about the weather than they did the score. It was a scene that has played out in Melville for more than 80 years.

“It’s something that’s always been done in Melville,” said Wyatt Donald leaning on his wooden stick, gloved hands clasped over the blade. “It goes back at least three generations.”

In Melville, hockey is a way of life. Many residents, young and old, of this otherwise quiet historic cowtown regularly meet on one neighbor’s pond or another to play hockey.

“Nobody out there ever skied; they only skated,” said longtime Sweet Grass County resident Barbara Van Cleve.

Not much has changed, according to Orry Carroccia. The high school-age hockey player is often found skating with his fellow Melvillians on the weekend.

“Every one of my family members is a really good skater,” he said. “We’ve always loved skating.”

Barbara’s father, Spike Van Cleve, picked up the sport during his time at an eastern prep school in the late ’20s, continued to play at Harvard University and brought it with him when he returned to Melville. Many credit him for sparking the town’s love affair with ice hockey.

The earliest iterations of Melville hockey were modest. Resident George Cremer recalled the men playing on a small pond, the result of a beaver dam, near his family’s ranch when he was in grade school.

“It was an old swamp is what it was,” he said. “They used to punch a hole in the ice and pump out water onto the surface so they would have a clean sheet.”

It did not take long for the games to turn into full-blown community events involving most of the town. The children especially enjoyed watching their fathers play.

“Everybody gathered on the ice to skate,” said Barbara Van Cleve’s younger sister Shelly Carroccia. “The men played in the center, and we skated around the edges.”

The town came down with a severe case of hockey fever. Games started occurring weekly. Neighbors brought chili and hot cider. They built bonfires. The level of play quickly rose.

Hockey is not a faint-hearted sport. Those who play competitively are exceptionally tough and celebrated for their ability to shake off an injury and continue skating, an attitude that meshes perfectly with Montana ranch life.

“I remember Kermit, he was the handsomest of the Anderson boys, he got his two front teeth knocked out by a skate,” Van Cleve said. “He was bleeding like a stuck pig. Well, they got him patched up, and he went back out there.”

Soon, the Melville ranchers set their hockey sites a little higher.

“The games got rough enough we decided we needed people other than neighbors to play against,” Carroccia said.

By the late ’30s, they organized a team, the Melville Longhorns. They sported red and yellow sweaters made with longhorns on the front and “Melville” on the back.

They built wooden backstops behind the goals, painted lines on the surface of the frozen pond and used weed sprayers filled with water to create a thick, smooth sheet of ice.

After a string of successful matches against other teams in the region, the Longhorns invited a college team from Alberta, Canada, to come play on their pond.

“Oh boy, (the Canadians) cleaned their clocks,” said Van Cleve.

She said the men then invited a Canadian high school team to play in Melville, “and they got their clocks cleaned again, so they thought, ‘we ought to leave the Canadians alone.’”

The Longhorns played all over the state of Montana. They played road games in Great Falls, Red Lodge, Bozeman and Big Timber. During a trip to Butte, where they played the School of Mines, they were snowed in by a storm and had to be dug out.

“They won a lot of their games,” Carroccia said. “They were really proud of their team.”

The Longhorns run lasted well into the 1950s until Melville’s hockey fever eventually subsided.

Donald surveyed the ice on the frozen pond Sunday afternoon with a smile on his face.

“The last couple of years there’s been too much snow,” he said. “It’s a little better this year.”

He sent an email to a group of neighbors the day before announcing that their ice had firmed up overnight, providing driving directions and telling recipients to invite whomever they would like.

“Winter can be grey and boring,” said Melville resident Charlie Rien, a direct descendent of one of the town’s original hockey players. “Hockey gives you something to look forward to.”

Sports inspire people to achieve new heights. They can make a long, cold winter bearable. They can turn simple pastimes into obsessions. But more importantly for Ann Marie Donald, Wyatt Donald’s 11-year-old daughter, who was sporting a pair of clean, white figure skates on Sunday, sports have an uncanny ability to foster a real sense of community.

“We like to do things together,” she said of her tightly knit Melville hockey family.