As Johnstown, Pa., readies to celebrate its Hockeyville title and bring back the ‘Slap Shot’ stars for some Old Time Hockey, another Western Pennsylvania ice rink could easily have played a starring role in the cult classic.
I love playing in rinks I’ve never been to before, which led me to The Ice Mine in Dunbar Township, Pa., just south of Connellsville, Pa., where an Amtrak train takes you to Pittsburgh and points west.
This small town, Leisenring, is off of U.S. 119, 15 minutes north of Uniontown. It’s about an hour south of Pittsburgh and Johnstown, nestled in between.
If there was ever to be another rink that could represent a Johnstown Chiefs feel and story, a place where the ghost of Ogie Oglethorpe and Reggie Dunlop would appear, it’s here in Leisenring.
The rink’s story includes embezzlement, relocated teams, large rats, missing equipment and at last, hope.
The first time I drove there from Frostburg, Md., I thought Google Maps was playing a trick on me. After heading north out of Uniontown on a state road, I’m directed to go on this rolling, winding road through farms. It’s two-way and paved, but it doesn’t feel like I’m going to be approaching an ice rink.
Typically you’ll find rinks either in a recreational park setting, a commercial shopping center or an industrial park.
The Ice Mine is nowhere in particular.
It’s between farm land and right across a tiny subdivision community called Leisenring, which includes a bed and breakfast that was once home to a coal mining boss for H.C. Frick & Co., a powerful coke mining company. That in itself is funny considering the town bears the name of another powerful coal family. (E.B. Leisenring died in 2011 at age 85.) The subdivision was probably a patch town at one time, where a coal company would build homes for their workers.
(Technically the rink is in Leisenring, but it’s advertised as Connellsville and people just say Connellsville since more people can see it on a map.)
Western Pennsylvania is definitely hockey country, but you’d still think an ice rink would be plopped down somewhere more conspicuous. Still, there’s enough people who drive here to support high school hockey, youth hockey, figure skating and more.
When you roll up to the rink, you see this giant purple warehouse structure that seems way too big for where it’s at. It’s a cinderblock paradise, but it also holds a roller rink and a fitness gym.
I didn’t really know where to park, or where to enter, not knowing where the ice rink began and the roller rink and gym began.
The Ice Miners
I entered through doors in the far left where signs point to a sales office for the Keystone Ice Miners, a Tier II junior hockey team out of the North American Hockey League—where the Johnstown Tomahawks also compete.
Before I dive into the building, let’s veer off and talk about the Ice Miners, whose story is similar to those lowly Johnstown Chiefs.
The team relocated and was renamed, coming from Port Huron, Mich., as the Fighting Falcons. Its owner, Maribeth Hayes, gave up and the team disbanded after the 2014-2015 season. (Granted, teams relocate because of troubles, but why here?)
The Ice Miners managed to make national hockey news during its only season in Pennsylvania. In a bittersweet story, players were chronicled in a story picked up by the Associated Press about billet families.
Just as bittersweet, Puck Daddy wrote about how the team won a 20-round shootout on the same night its owners said they’re quitting and withdrawing from the league. I’m sure there’s more to that than what’s published, but here’s the video from the marathon shootout that can give you a feel for the rink:
It’s sad that the team is gone so soon, especially when you walk into the rink and see a room adorned with the team’s logo that looks to be used for press conferences. The sales desk area unlocked, bare save for a few empty cubicles.
The team’s logo still appears around the facility, almost like, “hey, remember that time we had a junior hockey team? We’ll just leave this here until another one comes to us.”
As I move past the sad greetings of a team that moved away just months ago, the old junior hockey box office area isn’t being used. To pay, I should have gone in the middle entrance, but from where I’m at inside, the desk feels like it’s a quarter mile away, past the rink and in the middle of the complex.
It’s during this death march when I get to take in the place in awe, once I enter the ice arena itself from the north lobby.
It’s the tallest roof I’ve see for an amateur hockey arena, with bleachers rising up on two sides of the rink, to pack in about 4,000 people to enjoy goon hockey. The sheet here is an Olympic surface, which is increasingly rare these days. You almost have to put in an Olympic sheet because the space is so big.
The compressor doesn’t feel like it’s working all that much, granted it is August. Looking around the edges of the boards, ice separates in a few spots, signalling more cooling troubles and really, a danger zone. I guess that orange “head’s up” stripe is really to tell you you’re about to take out your knee from a hole in the ice instead of ramming into the boards.
The boards had nice play on the puck, but once you sit on the benches, you can see how run down and rusty the joists are.
The glass from goal line to goal line is surprisingly low. This is as low as some NHL arenas, maybe even shorter. Even more surprised that area doesn’t have safety netting because of the low glass.
Peering down the far end of the ice, high school-aged kids practiced in a fog. No, they didn’t have a concussion. A haze covered the ice thanks to the hot August day, faulty refrigeration equipment and lack of insulation to keep the place cold. I’m sure on a hotter day this place looks like the famous Fog Game at the old Auditorium in Buffalo when the Sabres lost to the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The dank rink with its musky smell and the sad look on the teens’ faces that manage the snack bar brings a charm to this place. In terms of a dive bar, this is a dive rink. And I love it. Mostly.
The imperfections quickly show beyond that. After I suited up in my goalie gear, I went to fill up my water bottle to the water fountain outside the room. It just trickles out water, and it looks like I’d get tetanus from drinking from it. The faucet in the bathroom is motion detected and you don’t have enough room to get water into your bottle.
So in goalie gear and skates, I waddle over to the concession area to fill up my bottle. It felt like a five minute walk in skates. (Lesson learned: fill up the bottle first in the lobby.)
One of the guys told me when I was getting dressed that I might want to consider keeping my skate guards on until I get to the bench. The locker rooms and hallways don’t have rubber flooring to protect your edges, and bolts in the floor are exposed, potentially nicking your blades.
Thanks to the heat, I’m nearly doubled over in exhaustion playing about an hour’s worth of hockey. I always wondered what Chris Chelios felt like when he rode an exercise bike in a sauna. Goalie gear in a hot rink is the equivalent.
So, why is this place so pungent and lacking in function?
Started From The Bottom
That’s because the function was taken away in a hurry by the former owner.
The rink has only been called The Ice Mine since 2010.
Before that it was called Divito Park, and was abandoned by its owner Douglas Corteal when the bank came calling for its money. In 2013, he was accused of stealing a four-sided 32-foot scoreboard, restaurant equipment, and much more, according to The Daily Courier, which is part of Trib Total Media:
Those items included the scoreboard and curfew clock, scissor lift, public announcement systems, office equipment, a conference table, black light bulbs, eight speakers for the DJ system, four racks for skates, three commercial sinks, cooking and catering equipment, service items, a lawn mower, forklift, transformer for events, lighting and a fog machine for the DJ system, HD projector screen, a fryer, a walk-in cooler, hood system, facility table and chairs and exterior signs and lighting.
This much is true: all of that is gone.
Why this was considered theft is because a bank—the victim—repossessed the rink and the assets inside were being used as collateral for the next owner. But the charges were dropped by a district judge mainly from a lack of proper paperwork outlining the inventory and who owned and sold what and when.
It’s clear by the condition the man left the building and that he sold essential items for an ice rink to operate, he did not have the best of intentions because the equipment was sold to one of his other companies he owned, Trib Media reported, and subsequently sold afterwards. Court documents show in 2009, Corteal listed Divito Park as a restaurant operation, which he filed bankruptcy on.
The paper also said the owner damaged the place. Players I talked to said the place was trashed. Just looking at the place with your own eyes, you can see someone was out to gut the place.
Rental skates and other equipment piled high in the locker room, probably to hide them so he can get them out the door to sell, one player said. Rats as big as footballs had to be exterminated, too, one player told me.
So, the bank and the group managing it are doing their best to get by, given they had to replace so much. Not everything has been replaced or fix in the five years since it reopened.
The shower floors are a fungus factory, restroom stalls have shower curtains instead of doors, boards and rusting joints look like they need to be replaced, and they don’t even have a functioning website.
If you want to know the schedule, you have to wait for it to be posted on Facebook. Want a response? Nobody will reply on Facebook but if you ask if the place is being sold, they will delete your comment like they did to me.
I tried calling the place several times, and the phone endlessly rings. Doesn’t go to voicemail, doesn’t prompt to a menu with a schedule.
It’s clear the management is working on a shoe string budget. They’re certainly inventive in bringing in revenue for the whole building. The place regularly hosts wrastlin’ matches, so much so that if you search for the Ice Mine in Connellsville on YouTube, the majority of the videos are from wrestling and not hockey.
This past weekend, I stopped by for hockey and I walk into the lobby where guys in glittery tights are walking around with boots as they hang out after or before their match. I walk toward the locker rooms on the other side of the building and an employee tells me to avoid Locker Room 3 because one of the wrestlers is taking a shower and brought a girl in with him. Now, that may sound like a hot fantasy, but the locker room would give you more diseases than a night of strange.
Where to now
That said, ice rinks are hard to make a profit on and this one has an uphill battle. It can’t open for summer tournaments and camps because the ice is dangerous when it’s warm outside. When it’s cool during the day, the ice is great. A soft pass can easily ice the puck here.
Really, this rink could use a GoFundMe page to get donations in to fix it up. The Cambria County War Memorial, winner of $150,000 from the Kraft Hockeyville contest, needed so much more than the winning money to fix the basics.
Before the contest was settled, the rink received $600,000 in government money to replace the floor under the ice, which can’t be repaired until next summer.
The contest forced the hand of the rink’s board and community to get necessary items to host a NHL preseason game. Another $200,000 was approved to get the following, according to the Tribune-Democrat:
The budgeted tab includes up to $130,000 for a new scoreboard, $50,000 for used boards and glass, $26,000 for a compressor and $5,324 for safety netting.
The rink is also receiving energy efficient arena lighting that will enable the game to be easily seen on broadcast TV, thanks to Constellation Energy, and is being paid back through credits. The release also mentions workers are also upgrading the youth hockey locker rooms.
In all, Johnstown is getting $1 million in upgrades over the next year thanks to Hockeyville, both directly and indirectly because of the community stepping up and donating time, materials or just money to get more improvements.
Just eyeballing what the Ice Mine would need for a non-NHL quality experience, they also could use a $26,000 compressor, $50,000 boards, donated lighting, safety netting along the sides, a $130,000 scoreboard since their last one vanished under questionable circumstances, and probably about at least $10,000 for rubber flooring for the locker rooms and hallways leading to the rink, and another $10,000 to $20,000 for plumbing and bathroom repairs. I’m sure additional insulation would help on the inside of the roof to help keep the cold air in, too. Oh god, I haven’t even thought about repairs to the Olympia ice resurfacer. That brush has seen better days.
It’s doubtful that Hockeyville would award a rink an hour from Johnstown the award the following year. Maybe in a four-year window, but the costs will only rise.
Maybe it’s time for the area to band together and get the rink fixed now to rid itself of a lot of its problems.
However, the ghosts of Slap Shot can stay.
The rink will always have its imperfect charm and even with its upgrades, you’ll get that Old Time Hockey feel being in the middle of farmland playing hockey in a huge warehouse.
I want to learn more about this rink and its odd history. I’ll continue asking folks at the rink about it, but if you have any stories, share in the comments.