Vance Balstad is as much a staple of Bemidji State hockey as anyone who has ever been associated with the program.
Since 1974, Balstad, 68, has circled the rink on his Zamboni at Beaver hockey games. After 45 years, the man who says he bleeds green and white is calling it a career after the 2018-19 season.
“Vance is a good man,” BSU men’s hockey head coach Tom Serratore said. “He’s a fixture of this program.”
“He was jovial, he was articulate and he was also very effective in his tasks,” said R.H. “Bob” Peters, the program’s former longtime coach. “I respected his efforts on behalf of Bemidji State University.”
What started out as a temporary job has turned into a lifelong passion for the Park Rapids native.
Balstad first became involved at the old John Glas Fieldhouse as a student worker. Not long after receiving his teaching degree from Bemidji State in 1973, Balstad came back to campus looking for a job.
“I talked to the janitorial supervisor because I’d known him from my years working as a student,” Balstad said, “and he said, ‘Well, we have a Zamboni job open right now.’ They called it provisional, which means get through the season and then see what happens.”
By the next year, Balstad had a permanent job manning the Zamboni, tending to the ice and serving as de facto equipment manager. He estimates he’s missed only four men’s hockey home games in his career since.
Over the next 36 years, Balstad became known throughout the BSU athletic department. He worked with a variety of sports besides hockey, but people knew they could always find him at the John Glas.
“I worked with baseball, and managed (Chet Anderson Stadium) on game days and things like that,” Balstad said. “But my title was hockey rink ice maker.”
Balstad laughed when, about 35 years ago, he recalled a friend involved with the state government claiming he knew the only ice maker who works for the state of Minnesota. When people questioned him, sure enough, there was Balstad’s name as proof.
“I was the only hockey rink ice maker for a very long time, which I thought was kind of cool,” Balstad said. “It didn’t make the job any different, but you had kind of a name for yourself.”From John Glas to the Sanford Center
Balstad, the school’s lone honorary letterwinner, retired from his full-time job at BSU in 2010 following the program’s move to the Sanford Center. Thinking his Zamboni-driving days were over, Balstad was surprised to learn he was wanted for the job at the new arena.
Peters had a hand in bringing Balstad back.
“Coach Peters is a historian. He thinks of things that have happened,” Balstad said. “He’s superstitious. And I understand the conversation was, ‘We’d like to take something old, something traditional from John Glas to the new facility.’ And so that’s why I was invited.”
“To me it was a natural (decision),” Peters said. “He was an excellent ice maker. … He was just a natural, so to speak.”
Balstad leapt at the opportunity.
“I said, ‘Well, that makes sense because you’re taking something old to the new facility, and I’m old, I’m retired now,” he joked. “So that’s how I ended up at the Sanford Center, and it’s been a good run. The Sanford Center is a beautiful facility, but it’ll never be the John Glas.”
Eight of the Beavers’ 13 national titles have come during Balstad’s tenure, and the school hosted several national championship games.
Peters had long tried to convince Balstad to don a tuxedo for those national tournament games, but there was never enough time to acquire one.
When the Beavers moved to Division I in 1999, he finally relented.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to wear a tuxedo,’” Balstad recalled. “So I did for maybe three years.”
The tuxedo’s run came to an end when he couldn’t access it in time before a game one night. BSU won handily and the tux never saw the ice again.
“You know, if something’s working, you don’t change,” Balstad said. “That was the end of the tuxedo.”Players, students like family
Numerous students worked for Balstad over the years and learned the tools of the trade when it came to caring for a rink. Serratore and BSU women’s hockey head coach Jim Scanlan both spent time working for him during their playing days.
None of Balstad’s students likely spent as much time at the rink with him as Chad Myhrer.
Myhrer became one of Balstad’s students while still in high school in the early 1990s. Myhrer worked as a Zamboni driver at the Glas through 2000 before returning when the Sanford Center opened in 2010, leaving his post last year.
“As far as making ice, I learned everything from him,” Myhrer said. “... He’s a great guy to work with. We’re really good friends, and will continue to be good friends.”
Hundreds of players have come through Bemidji State during Balstad’s tenure, including future NHL pros.
Balstad has created countless friendships with those who’ve donned the green and white. He’ll long cherish the relationships he’s formed with them all.
“I always call them my kids,” Balstad said. “It’s family. I’m going to miss it terribly.”
“We’re all family,” Serratore said. “Everybody’s part of the program, and you grow together and evolve together. … Whether it’s trainers or equipment managers, there are so many people who are part of the program behind the scenes. They’re just so valuable and important to the program, and sometimes that goes unnoticed.”
Serratore is one of many who will miss seeing Balstad around the rink.
“When you’re around somebody so long, it kind of hits you right between the eyes when they retire,” Serratore said. “It’s like, holy moly, you’re not going to see them in that capacity anymore.”
Balstad’s family became as much a fixture of the program as he did. His wife Susie formerly worked the concession stand and daughter Sarah could often be seen around the various teams. All three are Bemidji State graduates.
Fans, players and coaches alike can still expect to see Balstad and his wife at future games.
“I’m kind of looking forward to just sitting in the bleachers and drinking my pop and spilling my popcorn a little bit,” Balstad said, “because I’ve never had the opportunity to do that.”
After 45 years, Balstad said he wouldn’t change a thing about his career.
“It’s been a good run,” Balstad said. “The Sanford Center has been very, very nice. But it’s time now to once again pack the old kit bag and say goodbye to driving the Zamboni.”