Ice time is always a challenge no matter what

Three things are certain in life: death, taxes and complaints about ice time.

No matter where you’re ice is at, convenient ice time is hard to come by.

Much of that is because the predominant users—adult and youth leagues—crave evening ice slots. Somewhere in that comfortable zone between 6 to 9:30 p.m. During the weekends, the kids get all the Saturday times they can get with an occasional Sunday morning or afternoon game. Adults will take the late afternoon through late night scraps.

Whether that ice rink is in a hockey hotbed or in a remote location, not everyone is going to get great a prime time slot.

A local high school sports reporter for The Washington Post documented the woes finding ice time in the DMV area:

At 6:15 a.m. on a Sunday in mid-January, the St. Mary’s Ryken ice hockey team took the ice at Capital Clubhouse in Waldorf for its weekly practice. The harsh fluorescent light contrasted with the inky pre-dawn of a cold, drab day. In the windowless rink area, parents sat around picnic tables with large coffees and stared at their smartphones, chatted with each other or simply looked out at the Knights’ practice.

Yup, that’s 6:15 a.m. on a Sunday for a practice. It’s not unheard of high school football and basketball players having two-a-days or even pre-school practices, but at least the gym and field is at the school. I know that The Ice Gardens in Laurel, which has one of the largest adult hockey programs on the East Coast, has an early morning adult league through the week, but that’s more of a function of plenty of folks with government or government contractor jobs that need to get their reps in before they stand still on the Beltway.

That rink, which has four sheets plus an outdoor 3-on-3 rink added in 2013, is crazy business regardless of the type of hockey. My friend Doug who I played with in high school said he is on a waiting list for pick-up hockey. That’s not so pick-up and go, huh?

Down here in Ellenton, Fla., well-to-do guys with flexible schedule and retirees routinely fill up mid-afternoon pick-up slots during the week. I’ve documented before a few times how University of South Florida’s hockey team drives down to Ellenton for home games and University of Florida’s club team in Gainesville drives 90 minutes-plus to Orlando and Jacksonville for practice and home games.

I’m sure in certain communities in Massachusetts and Minnesota have ice time issues, too, because of a high demand. But you got to remember that ice is expensive and rinks need great management to make a profit. For players, there’s a balance of cost, time of day, length of time and distance and time of drive that factor in committing to playing. Personally, I drove 90 minutes from Sarasota, Fla., to Oldsmar to play hockey two years ago because the league was free for goalies, the ice times were great on late Sunday afternoon to evening and the 90-minute drive was relatively easy. Plus I’d have at least an hour of ice time. If I see pick-up or games that were only 60 minutes, it wouldn’t be worth my time. Make it 90 to 120 minutes and I’ll make the drive.

Outside of commuting issue, ice rinks can go belly-up in a hurry for a myriad of reasons.

So many things can go wrong for ice rinks

On the management side, it was a tough go 16 years ago or so for ice rinks in Maryland—especially in the Hagerstown area and extending into a nearby Pennsylvania town.

My hometown rink, the Hagerstown Ice and Sports Complex, had several management changes quickly after it opened in 1997, shady characters, an unfinished rink and so much debt that the city temporarily closed it and wanted to turn it into a flea market. For many, the location isn’t convenient because it’s not off an interstate exit but it’s in a park setting that help push plans forward for the old Hagerstown Fairgrounds to be turned into a multi-sports park. It’s a beautiful park with the ice rink there, but there could always be a better location to get more traffic.

Hagerstown Ice is on its feet today and maybe, finally, will get showers and new locker rooms and if things go well, a new sheet of ice could be built in the next decade. The rink is running in the black, can pay off bills and repairs. The adult league now has grown and split into two—six upper league teams and six lower league teams.

When I returned for a quick visit in December, one of my friends who volunteers at the rink said the management made simple changes to bring in revenue again. They adjusted the public skate time and Zam the ice once or twice during public skate to force people off the ice and head for the concession stand. The rink would do this in the early days but for a time just stopped altogether as a penny-pinching move to save on Zam maintenance and water costs that proved to be a pound foolish.

If you want an example of when everything goes wrong look no further than the Doris I. Billow Ice Arena. Just northeast of Hagerstown near Waynesboro, Pa., a better Olympic ice rink [in appearance only] was built thanks to money left over from an estate but after opening in 1997 months after the Hagerstown rink opened 30 minutes down the road, the $2.5 million rink closed in 2001 because of foreclosure and was sold at auction in 2003 and ended up as an indoor tennis complex. The rink received a fair share of state and local money to support it.

Part of its failure, as the Herald-Mail reported, was its location. Did anyone not hire a good real estate or business manager? Evidently not. One group wanted to build in Greencastle, Pa., off of a heavily traveled Interstate 81 and five miles made all the difference back then. The Zullinger site, near Waynesboro, had no draw to it. It was a small village with a mom-and-pop grocery store, a pizza place and a used car lot on the way to somewhere else yet in the middle of nowhere despite its location. It’s a little more developed today but not by much. But as the newspaper reported, the issue was resolved in court and the wrong side—thinking hyperlocal instead of regional—won. Here’s how it played out back then, according to the former executive director of the non-profit at the time, L. Michael Ross:

“It was intended to be a regional facility that would include Washington County,” Ross said.

When officials in Maryland saw that construction of an ice rink in Franklin County was being delayed by legal wrangling, they decided to build a rink in Hagerstown, Ross said. When that happened, a financial resource dried up for Pennsylvania, he said.

In certain categories both the Hagerstown and Zullinger rinks had great demand and filled up and the youth teams were very competitive. In bantam hockey we could actually travel and go to Waynesboro and play other teams (multiple!) instead of beating up against the one other team at our rink and getting our asses whooped by the Frederick teams. Eventually the Cumberland Valley Flames would form and then instead of being involved in the Capital Beltway Hockey League against Baltimore, Washington and Northern Virginia teams, they opted to play in a league that would take them to Delaware, Philadelphia, New Jersey and even New York.

Remember how this post was about ice time? Once Zullinger shuttered, both the adult and youth teams tried to play in Hagerstown but depending on what you read or who you talk to, either weren’t welcome or didn’t like the ice time options. Granted, at that time the Hagerstown rink management wasn’t great either with running its own rink and had a contentious relationship with the Waynesboro rink. What saved Hagerstown was that the city was willing to bail it out and eventually found the right nonprofit to manage the rink. The Waynesboro rink was owned by a private non-profit and the township didn’t want to buy it.

It was short-sighted at the time in so many ways for both sides. Take the ice time because is the drive to Frederick seriously a better option? For the Adams County players, maybe. But at the time, the Hagerstown adult league only had four to five teams. Once the Zullinger rink closed, that bumped up to six to eight depending on the year until a recent surge in adult novice hockey. Players came anyway, but not as a league. Just individual teams joining a new league. Depending where other Zullinger adult and youth players lived, they either hoofed it to Mechanicsburg and Harrisburg, Pa., or to Frederick.

Stop and go in FredCo

About 40 minutes east of Hagerstown in Frederick—a much larger city and more metropolitan than Hagerstown—the then-Frederick Sports and Ice Arena went into bankruptcy in 1998 with two sheets of ice. From what I recall, there’s a door in the pro shop that leads to an enormous empty area where a third sheet was to be built. Please let me know if I’m wrong, but I was told years ago that the third sheet of ice was intended to have about 2,000 seats or so for a higher tier junior team that never materialized.

Bankruptcy didn’t do much because the mortgage wasn’t being paid so it was nearly sold at a foreclosure auction. Despite the financial woes, the rink never closed its doors and a local businessman and his sister purchased the rink in 1999 and renamed it Skate Frederick. The facility is very busy, but there’s still grumblings of people not liking how either their league is organized or other managerial issues that face most rinks.

More ice

Bright spots do exist for more ice in Maryland. Bowie, Md., is building a new sports complex that includes two ice sheets—one NHL and one Olympic—to be completed in 2018. It looks likely—though not entirely clear in public documents and published reports—that the complex would replace the 1971 Bowie Ice Arena. That’s unfortunate on two fronts. One, closing the rink would get rid of a beautiful wood ceiling that has to be the best ice rink ceiling I’ve ever played under. Two, the rink was heavily renovated in 2004 to add a new entrance, locker and meeting rooms, a pro shop and other amenities.

Sure, that was 10 years ago but the rink still looks young with the renovations. Granted, a new refrigeration system and new dasherboards were needed for $1 million but the city opted to move those funds and put it toward a new ice rink. I hope that an ice rink management company buys the old Bowie rink or a philanthropist commits to renovate the existing ice arena to give the area three rinks and save that wood ceiling.

I feel like that Hagerstown sheet is a ways away, and Mountain Maryland still has a void thanks to Cumberland’s rink closure a decade ago. That Hagerstown sheet would bring in more people from the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, more folks from Winchester, Va., and south central Pennsylvania. With Cumberland, you have a snowier climate to deal with for players willing to commute and a more rural area. Sure, a couple of players could come from as far as the outskirts of Morgantown, W.Va., and a few from Bedford, Pa., who could be skating in Johnstown or Altoona right now. (And yes, selfishly from Frostburg, too.)

I haven’t followed the woes of ice rinks in metropolitan Baltimore and D.C. enough to figure out how many additional rinks the area would have other than knowing that months after the Reisterstown Sportsplex opened in February 2008 the Northwest Ice Rink in Baltimore closed.

Here’s a lesson to be learned from any of the rinks mentioned: Always have an extra million dollars tucked away before you open and have that as a contingency fund. Which honestly, means get enough private money in advance to not have a mortgage. The Zullinger rink owed $1.8 million in its foreclosure. Bowie rink repairs? $1 million. The Hagerstown rink’s losses, which were around $200,000 to $300,000 a year, were saved by the city each year as the city worked to pay off the loan and help out the rink with utility payments. Not a lot of cities would have done that.

I’ve written enough on this blog whether it was Maryland rinks, Florida rinks (and specifically one in Lakewood Ranch when I wrote for Patch) or in what should be a hockey hotbed of Erie, Pa. Ice rinks can easily run themselves into financial crises if not managed correctly—whether it’s bookkeeping, long-range planning, proper maintenance, marketing or community relations or not protecting itself from a lack of interest because of NHL lockouts.

But even if all these rinks succeeded and more sheets of ice were to be built, you will always run into a player, an organization, and figure skaters, too, complain about ice time.

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One thought on “Ice time is always a challenge no matter what

  1. Pingback: Revisiting a 1986 study on building an ice rink in the Cumberland-Frostburg market | hockeynutsandbolts

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