Vance Balstad in 2003.
Micah Friez 2023 square

By Micah Friez

Published 10:00 a.m. on June 19, 2023

Bemidji State College acquired its first Zamboni while Vance Balstad ’73 was a student. And as soon as he first laid eyes on it, a thought popped in his head.

“That is the funniest looking thing,” he recalled. Granted, so was Balstad’s attempt at playing hockey.

“I can’t skate a lick. I have no clue how to skate,” he admitted. “When I was a little kid, I tried it once and went, ‘This isn’t for me.’ I had never seen a live hockey game until I came to Bemidji State. But I came here as a freshman in the fall of ’68 and got hooked on hockey.”

Balstad famously found his niche in the sport another way, serving as the university’s beloved ice maker for 45 years. He retired after the 2019 season and has since enjoyed other lifelong passions in retirement, but not before authoring a colorful career that could fill a Zamboni-sized book.

“I have so many stories. It’s a great place, the university,” he said. “And I miss it to this day. The work was good.”

Active in the community

Despite now being settled into retirement, the pace of life hasn’t slowed down for Balstad.

“You know what’s funny is that people think, ‘You’re retired? That means he’s got nothing to do, so let’s ask him to help,'” he laughed. “And I haven’t been good at saying no.”

Balstad remains busy with an array of involvement. He and his wife, Susie Balstad ’74, are heavily involved in the Bemidji Lions Club and the First City Lions Club, Fishing Has No Boundaries and a number of non-profit organizations. They’ve also been recognized for their efforts with a few prestigious awards, like Vance’s recent Melvin Jones Award – one of the highest honors for a Lions Club member.

“We’re busy. I never thought I’d be this busy,” Vance said. “We’re very proud of what we’re doing, just for the fact that we’re community oriented. We always have been.”

It’s a wicked pace for the Balstads, and an ironic twist based on one of Vance’s old hijinks with the newspaper reporter.

“When I first started driving the Zamboni, the driver before me drove pretty quick,” he said. “We had a gentleman working for the Bemidji Pioneer — Cliff Morlan. He decided it was fun to time the Zamboni driver. And then it was in the paper the next week: ‘Well, Vance was driving kind of slow on Saturday. Here’s his time. Maybe he was having some trouble.’ He thought that was hilarious.”

The gags and pranks often extended to the players, which Balstad embraced wholeheartedly. That fun environment – and particularly those students – are what he misses most about the job.

“Working with the kids kept you young because they were always pulling something on you,” he said. “You’d go to your office and your chair would be missing. Or everything would be cleared off your desk and put in a pile in the corner. They just had fun.”

Home-ice advantage

Perhaps nobody embodies a home-ice advantage quite like Balstad. In fact, he and legendary former coach R. H. “Bob” Peters had a system in between periods.

“Here’s a little secret you learn with your coach,” Balstad divulged. “We’d have a game where we’re just kicking butt. We were rolling. And he’d walk past me in the Zamboni and say, ‘Get ‘er going. We’ve got them on the run.’ If we had a game where we’re getting our butts kicked, he’d walk by and go, ‘Slow it down, take your time. I’ve got some work to do.’ It was something you just knew about each other. We had our own little thing.”

The arrangement was an effective one. The Beavers won eight national championships during the Balstad era, which also featured several title games inside the John Glas Fieldhouse.

There was absolutely nothing like the atmosphere of the Glas. “Oh, the sound, the noise, the excitement,” Balstad said. “At John Glas, you were right on top of everything.”

Balstad retired when Bemidji State left the Glas, but he came back for nearly another decade inside BSU’s new home at the Sanford Center. He made his last go-around in February 2019 in an emotional culmination of lifelong service.

“Unbelievable,” he said. “I drove on that ice and the crowd went goofy. It was a hard drive.”

Susie also rode in the Zamboni for that final pass. But she certainly wasn’t the only one who made memories in that chair.

Not long ago, Vance was in Blackduck when a woman happened to stop him. Of course, she knows about the program pillars like Bob Peters and Joel Otto. But to her, and thousands just like her, Balstad is royalty, too.

“Do you remember me?” she asked. “You gave me a ride on the Zamboni on my birthday when I was little.”

“Did you have fun?” Balstad asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I had a great time.”

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