Belmont Complex celebrates 45 years of fun on the ice
In 1967 there wasn't a better place in Armstrong County to have some fun than at the Belmont Complex in East Franklin.
Where else could you have parties, make friends, hang out and ice skate and play hockey every day after school and on the weekends?
“Mary Ann and I would go there right after school and we would have an empty rink and be the only two people on the ice,” said Carol (Kirkwood) Lorigan of skating as teens back then with her good friend, the late Mary Ann Montebell, the daughter of the Belmont's founders, Hugo and Anne Montebell.
“There were a lot of falls and a lot of laughs,” she said. “Such good memories.”
Forty-five years later and things are still the same — The Belmont continues to be one of the region's most-treasured recreational facilities.
The Belmont is celebrating the 45th anniversary of when the late Hugo Montebell announced the opening for ice skating at his new indoor rink with standard ice hockey dimensions and seating for nearly 2,000 people in November of 1967.
“We have more people skating today than even back then,” said Belmont Complex Director Gary Montebell, who is Hugo and Anne's son.
“People who skated here as kids now bring their grandkids. It's the busiest public session in the Pittsburgh area.”
Gary said his father, realizing there was nothing for people to do in the area, was inspired to build his dream for the community.
“I was 12,” Gary said.
“I lived here. It was all-day skating when your family owns an ice rink. I had a lot of great times, still do, and made a lot of close friends and maintained those friendships throughout my life.”
“I learned a good work ethic and had a lot of fun doing it,” he added.
Those early days were tough times, although fun for the Montebell family.
“We worked hard to make it happen,” Anne Montebell said.
“Hugo said we were going to live here and die here and we would put our money here in the community. He said that hockey was going to be the sport of the future.”
In 1979 the Armstrong County Recreational Authority purchased the complex which includes the ice arena, meeting room, events space and an outdoor Olympic-size swimming pool.
The complex, still owned by the county, remains as the only ice arena in the area.
“The Belmont Complex was a premier recreational facility then and to this day 45 years later is still a premier feature of Armstrong County,” said Armstrong County Commissioner Bob Bower.
“Hugo was way ahead of his day for what he brought to the county.”
“I'm proud that I worked there in the 1960s and that now I oversee the county facility as a county commissioner as part of my responsibilities,” he said. “I hope the county maintains it for many years to come.”
Local dentist, Dr. Mark Ferguson, skated there even before the complex was built, when everyone skated outdoors on the ice on the swimming pool.
“You would skate so fast on that sheet of ice that your eyes would water early in the morning in the cold in that arena,” said Ferguson.
“It was a wonderful feeling. Everything I did was around skating and hockey. Hugo was so gracious allowing us to come in early and skate.”
The Belmont has been a big contributor to the growth of hockey and ice skating for local youths.
Today it plays host to local high school hockey, amateur and college teams, “Learn to Play Hockey” programs and in-house hockey.
“In the beginning there was nothing there but a sheet of ice and Hugo Montebell,” said John Spangler, the founder of the hockey league and its first coach.
“Today I'm very proud of the program. It took a lot of work and it's grown every year.”
Larry Montebell was a nephew of Hugo's and the cousin of Gary.
He and Gary were part of the success in hockey that came with the Belmont in its early days.
“I remember the reason we all became such good hockey players — we would be the first ones on the ice and the last ones off,” said Larry.
“On at 6 a.m. and we wouldn't get off until noon. At night some of us would turn the lights on and play til 3 a.m.”
“It's great to come from such a small area and be blessed with a facility like that thanks to my uncle Hugo.”
Greg Capone was a member of that first hockey team.“We had quite a crew and we didn't lose much,” said Capone.
“I was a Belmont original. Hugo was a real father-figure for everybody. He treated you like you were one of his own. You had to behave though or you were out of that place.”
“I wish I could do it all over again,” he said.
In the off season the arena offers a large space for events such as boxing, concerts and flea markets.
This spring, Phase III renovations will begin creating six new locker rooms, a new skate shop, concession and party rooms as well as a completely renovated building front and entrance.
Today the Belmont has figure-skating lessons and the Belmont Blaze ice-skating team performances taking place.
Ice skating remains popular with Friday night public skate sessions packing the arena with kids from the community.
“We've been fortunate in this community to have that facility,” said Ferguson.
“Now when you see someone you haven't seen in a long time, it takes you back to being on that ice with them.
“I can't wait for my granddaughter to put on her first skates.”
Mitch Fryer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303 or firstname.lastname@example.org.