The New Ice Age: Groups look to add ice, ease winter pressure | SteamboatToday.com

The New Ice Age: Groups look to add ice, ease winter pressure

— It's not uncommon for manager Dmitry Chase to arrive at the Howelsen Ice Arena long before the sun rises on the Yampa Valley and to lock the facility's doors long after the sun has set.

"Five of seven days a week, there is something going on as early as 6 a.m.," Chase said. "I'm getting here at 5:30 a.m. to open up for practices Monday through Thursday."

This schedule is a testament to just how popular the sport of hockey has become in Steamboat Springs and evidence to local ice arena supporters that there's need for more ice. 

Among the groups pushing for an additional sheet of ice is the Steamboat Youth Hockey Association, which introduces the game to players starting as young as 5 and offers programs through high school. The organization currently has 241 players and purchases as much ice time as possible from November through March.

But the sport's following reaches beyond youth hockey and includes enough adult players to fill three adult leagues and to field three women's teams. A private group, No Bozos, also purchases ice time Fridays.

Other user groups include the Wranglers junior hockey team, which is in the middle of its inaugural season in Steamboat, and a figure skating program that has fewer numbers than hockey but an equally devoted following.

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When you put all these groups together, the demand for ice time is high, and the number of available hours is limited. 

"In July, I start to reach out to all the user groups and book all the ice," Chase said. "There is kind of an unwritten rule that if you had ice in previous years, then you have first right of refusal to it this year."

The challenge at the Howelsen Ice Arena is making sure that all the different user groups get a fair shot at ice time and that the rink can still provide public skate times for both residents and visitors. Chase said part of the rink's goals include providing recreation opportunities for non-user groups, with open skating sessions, bumper cars and drop-in hockey sessions.

As the demand for ice time rises in the winter months, public ice time is impacted.

Limiting growth 

The user groups in Steamboat Springs know it's difficult to get the ice time they want in the winter months, and they also understand what that time on the ice means to future generations of skaters.

If the children in their programs can't get on the ice, it becomes difficult to draw new participants. 

The leaders of the youth hockey community joined forces with the city of Steamboat Springs to rejuvenate the "Intro to Hockey" program in fall 2015, and it's attracted a record number of new skaters to the introductory program, many of whom move up into the ranks of the hockey association, according to Brian Ripley, Steamboat Springs Youth Hockey Association director.

But Ripley warned the program's growth could be impacted in the future by the limited amount of prime ice time available at Howelsen. In many cases, youth leagues are forced to take times later than they want, and it is rare for one team, or even one age division, to have an entire sheet of ice to themselves.

"We have purchased all the ice time that we can get," Ripley said. "There is no more ice time available."

Ripley said the association has been able to make things work so far, but if numbers continue to grow, the organization might have to look at dropping from three to two practices per week, per team. 

Many of those practices take place before school starts, and some of the older age groups start practices well after 8 p.m. on school nights.

"Our youth sports, the elementary-aged kids, we have lots of constraints and limited times," Ripley said. "We have stretched those practices as far as possible, and there are no more spots for us to use."

But it's not only the children who are impacted by the demand for ice in the winter. Players in Steamboat's adult winter leagues step onto the ice when most are getting ready for bed. Because of this, many older players have decided that their love of the game is not worth the pain of getting out of bed for work following a late-night game.

Steamboat currently has two city-run adult leagues in the winter that include about 12 teams. The A-B league includes four teams that play on Wednesdays with games starting at 8:45 and 10:15 p.m. The adult C league, which includes twice the number of teams, holds games mainly on Sundays, at 5:45, 7:15, 8:45 and 10:15 p.m.

Chase estimates there are about 150 players involved in the two city leagues. There is also a private adult "A" league that involves about 80 players.

"I started playing hockey about 20 years ago when they put a roof on the rink," said Peter Van De Carr, a longtime player and hockey supporter. "A second sheet would be good. The need is there, and I think the adult programming would blossom."

Van De Carr said he enjoyed playing, but this year, he's decided to skip the winter adult league.

"It's gotten a lot harder," Van De Carr said. "The times are a little more brutal, and there are more late night games. The past few years, I realized that I just couldn't play a game that started at 10:15 p.m. and work efficiently the next day."

He said it's clear that a second sheet of ice would help ease the problem but admits that people who don't play or use the ice arena on a regular basis may not even be aware of the winter ice-time crunch.

A second sheet

Proponents of a second sheet of ice believe the need for more ice time far outweighs the cost of adding to the existing facility at Howelsen Hill, and if done right, the expansion will not only impact local hockey and ice skating programs but could benefit the community as a whole.

"It definitely interrupted our momentum," Brent Pearson, a member of the Ice Rink Advisory Committee, said of a Steamboat Springs City Council decision in 2015 to table a possible expansion of the arena. "We have seven-figure donations sitting on the sideline, and we haven't even started a significant fundraising project yet."

Pearson said the proposal to add a second sheet of ice had garnered the support of the Parks and Recreation Commission, but was halted by the City Council. He said the council wanted to take a more holistic look at the process and look at all the city-owned facilities before moving forward.

Pearson said although he understood the decision, the Ice Rink Advisory Committee was left in limbo, with no real direction.

But the group isn't giving up.

"We are attempting to have the project shovel ready," Pearson said. "The biggest frustration is we don't know if they would or wouldn't take the project, even if it was paid for 100 percent by donations." 

He said the City Council has concerns about the cost of managing and maintaining the facility once it is built. Pearson believes a new multi-use facility could be self-supporting and would be used not only during hockey season, but also year round.

Pearson said the facility, which would most likely be a concrete slab covered by a roof, with one or two walls, would relieve pressure for ice time during the peak winter months by providing better start times for youth hockey practices and adult hockey games.

Chase thinks the added ice would result in more consistent public skate times, and more time for open skating sessions and bumper cars on ice.

The added ice would also allow local tournaments to grow or even double in size, Pearson said, which, in turn, would provide a boost for local businesses outside of the ski season, when hotels and restaurants are looking for customers. 

In early spring, late fall and summer, an artificial turf surface would provide a space for soccer, lacrosse and other sports that could use a covered facility. Proponents said that surface would provide local teams a place to gear up for the spring season long before the snow melts off local fields. There has even been talk of covered batting cages that could be used when storm clouds dominate the summer sky.  

"A second sheet of ice has been in the master plan for over a decade," said Kerry Shea, a local hockey supporter who is involved in the sport as a player, coach and member of the SSYHA board. "What we want is more of a multi-use sports complex. In the off-season, it could be used for lacrosse, soccer or baseball … it would be a facility that would have a positive impact on the community and on our city, outside of what we know it will do for youth hockey."

Shea said the second sheet of ice would be used from November through March, if weather allows, but could and would have a much larger impact on the community. 

Looking to the future

Kyrill Kretzschmar, the city's recreation and enterprise manager, is thrilled Steamboat Springs residents and visitors have discovered all the great things the Howelsen Ice Arena has to offer, but he's the first to admit there isn't space to grow.

"There isn't much room on the schedule," Kretzschmar said. "These are great problems to have, and now, it is up to the community on how we have to solve them. It's a matter of how long we want to wait … the ice arena at Howelsen Hill will be expanded someday."

Kretzschmar said the arena staff does a great job with scheduling, and thanks to understanding user groups, he doesn't hear a lot of complaints in the winter. But he admits the system is running at capacity, and there is little room for error, or additional growth, moving forward.

The crowded ice at Howelsen is something Pearson has first-hand experience with as a coach. The Pee Wee hockey coach sees the issues every week when the group of 12-year-olds he coaches are on the ice at the same time.

"We have 42 kids on the ice," Pearson said. "Three teams share the ice twice a week, two teams share the ice on the other day and one team will get the entire sheet of ice once every two or three weeks."  

It's not an ideal situation for the coach or for Kretzschmar, who said the issue goes beyond the growth of youth hockey. He said the limited ice has impacted open skating and bumper cars, which alone brought in an estimated $75,000 last year — something nobody could have anticipated when the rink was covered in early 1996.

"A second sheet of ice adds potential for some more usage," Kretzschmar said. "There is potential that we haven’t even thought of yet. We always have a very conservative operational point of view, but I feel like a second sheet of ice should at least break even."

Last year, Steamboat's single sheet of ice was booked for about 4.150 hours of ice time at between $190 per hour for a nonprofit group to $265 per hour for a commercial user. The cost of the additional sheet of ice and the facility to house it is $4.2 million. Kretzschmar said the "new" ice could be supported by the current refrigeration system, which was designed for additional ice.

Pearson acknowledges that, when the idea of expanding the ice rink was tabled by the Steamboat Springs City Council, it was a blow to the Ice Rink Advisory Committee, but it didn't stop the group from forging ahead. 

The committee plans to meet next week and has paid for preliminary plans to expand the facility, which the group plans to take to the Steamboat Springs City Planning Commission in the near future. If, or when, the project gets the support of the city, Pearson said the group will be ready to move forward. 

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966