Conflicted About Kraft Hockeyville

Kraft HockeyvilleI’m having mixed emotions about what rink I’m supporting for this year’s Kraft Hockeyville.

The Rockville Ice Arena here in Maryland is one of the top 10 finalists. It boasts quite a success story and quite a few of the Capitals players’ children have played there over the years. One of them being current Maple Leaf William Nylander and his little brother Alex Nylander when their dad Michael “Circles” Nylander played here…twice.

There’s also, nearly the same amount of a drive away from me, the Twin Ponds East Rink in Harrisburg, Pa. It’s close to Hershey, Pa., where the Caps affiliate Hershey Bears play in the Giant Center.

Here’s the deal: Rockville, and Montgomery County for that matter, is probably the most affluent community in the Kraft Hockeyville Top 10. Montgomery County consistently ranks high nationally for its household income thanks to cities like Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac.

I haven’t played in that rink since high school, but looking in the photos it looks well maintained. Probably just cramped and I’m sure they’d like to build new, larger locker rooms to benefit the elite teams.

Given the demographic of the families who play there, I’m sure the community could easily come up with the money itself through philanthropic partners and patrons.

Just by being in the top 10 the rink is guaranteed $10,000. I think they’d be happy with that. Moving on would mean $25,000, if they are runner-up it’s $75,000 and top prize is $150,000.

Also, one of the grand prizes is a pre-season game held in the rink. It’s too small so it would have to be played in the next closest arena…which is the Verizon Center.

This isn’t as cool of an experience as last year where Johnstown and its Cambria County War Memorial Arena was a runaway favorite. The county-owned and privately-managed rink was in danger of shutting down the last few years because of the financial challenges. The county has the largest population loss of any Pennsylvania county in the last five years, too.

The “Slap Shot” history made it endearing, and fortunately the county and state were pumping money into it anyway for a new subfloor, which couldn’t be installed in time for the pre-season game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning.

The NHL and its partners went above and beyond, providing additional improvements beyond the grand prize money to make the rink safe to play in for NHL players.

A year later, a competing rink across town, Planet Ice, announced it will shut down. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that isn’t too much of an issue because the North Central Recreation Center in Ebensburg was being used for maybe three hours a day and somehow stayed open. It is also owned by the county and managed by the same firm in charge of running the War Memorial. A new general manager was brought to remedy scheduling issues and the Planet Ice closure solves all of that.

That community is definitely facing economic woes where they’re lucky to make ends meet let alone have enough money to play hockey. So, even rink upgrades can’t solve bigger issues regarding hockey and rink availability in the community.

I haven’t been in Twin Ponds in ages either, but the rink’s owner Reed Patton told The Sentinel in Carlisle, Pa., he has a growing list of things to replace. Really, any rink hitting the 20-year mark has growing projects that they have to tackle:

“These things are very difficult to run,” Patton said. “This is the hardest thing I’ve done. There’s stuff that just gets worn down — compressors, roof, things like that that need attention. One of the items is the roof has been leaking as it gets older. There’d be some attention to the roof. Then for the rest of it, we would have to find out what Kraft Hockeyville would allow.”

What I like the Twin Ponds nomination is the game could potentially  be held in either the Giant Center or the “old barn” Hersheypark Arena. I could easily see a Capitals-Flyers match-up in the old arena, which has been recently renovated and is still used for Bears practices and community hockey games.

And actually, Patton also told The Sentinel, that after speaking with the Bears, the game would likely be put in Hersheypark Arena:

“We would probably do that at the Hersheypark Arena,” Patton said. “We talked to the Bears about that. It’s just a bigger venue and that would hold more people. It would be a free game, too, and we’d probably end up with some kind of lottery for tickets because there’d be so much demand for them.”

 

Some of the other nominees have really, really nice rinks.

I’m sure the historic Olympic Center in Lake Placid will get some votes for the history, but with a venue that big, I feel like the money won’t go that far.

There’s another rink outside of Chicago on the list that looks posh and well manicured and another that wants to build a third ice sheet.

The only one on the list that features Jeremy Roenick narrating the poor conditions is Lakeview Arena in Marquette, Mich. They show how the roof leaks and the compressor is about shot and the glass supports are rusted.

Since I can vote 50 times a day online and another 50 via text, I think I’m going to be splitting my votes in the first round. There are some communities that need the help more than Rockville.

‘Slap Shot’ Ghosts Alive in Western Pennsylvania rink

The Ice Mine in Leisenring, Pa., just south of Connellsville, features an Olympic ice sheet and seats about 4,000 people.

The Ice Mine in Leisenring, Pa., just south of Connellsville, features an Olympic ice sheet and seats about 4,000 people.

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.

The Ice Mine

The Ice Mine in Leisenring, Pa., just south of Connellsville, is surrounded by farmland on a rural road. Across the street is a a former “patch town” that is a tiny subdivision.

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.”

The Building

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 Ice Mine rink near Connellsville PA

The Ice Mine in Leisenring, Pa., just south of Connellsville, features an Olympic ice sheet and seats about 4,000 people.

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.

Hockeyville 2015 nominations to include U.S. ice rinks

Kraft HockeyvilleA very important program that raises funds to upgrade community ice rinks in Canada is expanding to the U.S., the NHL and Kraft foods announced Monday.

On Sunday, I proposed starting up a similar program in Florida, or at least Tampa Bay, because of a lack of Hockeyville in the U.S. Well, this solves some of it at least.

  • If you didn’t read Sunday’s blog (shame on you) or the NHL’s announcement, here’s how Hockeyville works:
  • The winners are technically towns and not ice rinks as communities are nominated.
  • Voting is held through several rounds to advance to the finals.
  • One finalist each from the East and West get $50,000 for arena upgrades in 2014’s contest. Top two receive $100,000 and grand prize winner gets a NHL pre-season game hosted at their arena. For 2015, the grand prized is increased to $150,000.

Details will be released in the coming months with a bigger announcement and kick-off during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 in Washington (I’ll be there in the outfield).

Now, I presume all rinks are eligible in the U.S., and that they’re not going to discriminate based on regions. Bookmark this blog or www.krafthockeyville.com to learn more details.

While the pot of money is larger for a greater impact for Florida rinks, they have to compete against all these rinks in the U.S. and maybe they’ll be lumped into Canada’s competition, too. That remains to be seen.

So, I still am pushing for my HockeyBay idea of fundraising to upgrade rinks here to make them top-notch and safe.

Rickety rinks

I haven’t been to all of the Florida rinks—mainly anything on the Atlantic coast save for Panthers IceDen, but having a few issues in the rinks down here in a warm climate isn’t enough of a sob story to win. I generalized some issues at the rinks in Tampa Bay that need to be addressed, but there are much worse. Fortunately one of them, the Clearwater Ice Arena, fixed an carbon monoxide issue in 2011 that caused 23 people to get sick. I’ve been to plenty of dingy rinks through the years that are more deserving of winning a national contest for upgrades.

I can think of two in Erie, Pa., in particular. One is the Ice Center of Erie, which used to be called the Igloo Ice Arena. I played there in a tournament during one my midget years in high school then came back to play some pick-up games in 2006 when I interned for the newspaper there, Erie Times-News. Nothing changed from 2000 to 2006. I haven’t been back since, but apparently the rink closed because of all the mounting issues, according to the Erie Times-News:

ICE general manager Steve Tuholski said the rink needed a new heat system, repairs to the entire floor and a new cooling tower, as well as about 2,000 pounds of Freon to recharge the system — at a total estimated cost of $400,000 to $500,000.

Tuholski said the cost of the floor alone was estimated to be between $300,000 and $400,000.

“It would be a hefty financial toll to get it back up and running,” Tuholski said.

Yeah, that sounds about right. Some other funky details about the rink included an unused office hanging well over one of the benches. My coach in midget told the lone girl on the team that was her dressing room and she looked in disbelief because there wasn’t even a curtain to hide her from the entire rink. We made room for her in our locker.

The bench came down really low to compensate so you couldn’t hop over the boards too well. If you could, you might hit the office. I’m surprised the glass window never broke. The showers were gnarly and I don’t know if you could even define the locker rooms as rooms.

Obviously $100,000 or even $150,000 wouldn’t have done anything for the rink. It’s a shame because Erie was already underserved for ice when it came to that community. The Erie Zoo’s land has the JMC Ice Arena, which closes during the summer and doesn’t open until November, leaving only Mercyhurst Ice Center’s rink available, which is an excellent facility, but is busy with figure skaters and the college teams. Also, Erie Insurance Arena’s ice is primarily used for the OHL’s Erie Otters.

JMC has a cool look both inside and outside, but needs some TLC. Outside, JMC looks like a 1960s old state park building. Inside, well, it needs help. In 2011, the ETN/Go Erie wrote about the struggles of that ice rink ran by the zoo and even with about $1 million of work over the span of a decade, it still needed more than $1 million of work in 2011. I never got to revisit the rink in 2006 to see what changed since I was there as a teen, but remembered some funky features. The lobby area was cramped and our dressing room was upstairs and was a large loft without a real bench. My teammates weren’t sure if we were going to break through the floor.

That was just in the walls of the room, let’s talk about getting there. Have you tried to walk up and down wooden steps without a handrail in goalie gear? I assure you it’s a thrill. There’s padding to break your fall from the gear but that’s it. (Also not the only rink I’ve had to walk down or up stairs in goalie gear to get to the rink.) So that needed some work.

What I loved about the rink was the one wall that has the U.S. and Canada flags crossed on a frosted glass wall, leaving natural light shining through. It’s just beautiful and I remember that rink fondly. I earned a game MVP in our tournament at that rink, despite our team getting smashed like 11-4, I stopped at least 60 shots. I’m not kidding you. Check out this Erie Times-News/Go Erie photo gallery of the rink through the years and stop on photo No. 3 to enjoy the view of the wall.

Come to think of it, Erie is in need of a brand new arena with at least two sheets of ice. It might be worth recruiting kids there to have their families move here to get ice time and live.

I even put those two rinks above my hometown Hagerstown Ice and Sports Complex, which didn’t have enough money to build showers when it opened in 1998. Sometime around 2009, work started to fundraise and build showers. As of March of this year, the project still isn’t completed. That’s far more manageable.

I’m excited for Hockeyville to be available in the U.S., and while there are rinks far more deserving elsewhere, this is also an opportunity to gain from another’s loss and build hockey in Florida.