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Community Rinks Drive the State of Hockey

By Steve Mann, 10/31/23, 12:45PM CDT


Soon it will be Election Day, and Minnesotans will be headed to the polls to vote, many likely doing so after having just dropped their child off at a hockey practice at the local municipal arena. And if it's an arena in Minnesota, then it's likely an arena that was paid for in part by funds that were approved by voters in a previous election.

“The topic of community-owned arenas is the most underappreciated part of the very successful and unique hockey model in Minnesota,” said Mike Snee, director of College Hockey Inc. and former executive director of Minnesota Hockey. “If Minnesota’s rink ownership model were to change from public to private, many of the rinks would close because, the reality is most rinks won’t be profitable. Fortunately, enough people in Minnesota look at ice rinks the way they look at playgrounds and high school football fields. The intent isn’t to make money, but to serve the community.”

Why Public is the Paradigm

Many, including Snee, believe it’s critical to the long-term health of the game in Minnesota to maintain the municipally owned model.

“If a rink is publicly owned, more than likely the main users of the rink are going to be non-profit youth hockey associations, high school programs and other entities that are considered community assets and not for profit,” he said. “If the rinks were privately owned, the primary users would be academies, clubs and private hockey organizations; in other words, hockey programs that are better for the bottom line. The community programs and high school teams might be fourth or fifth in line.”

This example has played out in other well-known hockey hubs in the U.S., where a shift from a public to a private ownership model has negatively impacted the local associations. As fewer non-profit community-based programs have access to ice and families turn to sponsored teams or look to play elsewhere, the connection to the community declines, the hockey culture suffers, and participation numbers fall. It provides a cautionary tale for hockey fans in Minnesota.

A non-Minnesotan’s Perspective

Ryan Ossenmacher has coached at the high school level in Michigan for 17 years, is president of the state’s high school coaches association, and led the Team Michigan Seniors to victory at the CCM NIT held at Plymouth Ice Arena in Minnesota this past spring. He has seen the aforementioned scenario firsthand in his home state.

“The reality is that here in Michigan, if you went back 30 years, we had a fair number of community rinks,” he said. “That number has done nothing but decline as cities choose to no longer fund them. They become empty spaces, eye sores or they’re torn down. I can’t even tell you the last time we built a new rink. I live in Northville. We don’t have a rink, so our kids travel to a community outside of our community to play.”

According to Ossenmacher, that lack of local ice has had a big impact on team continuity and overall community connection.

“I’m fortunate to be able to come to Minnesota every year and am familiar with how things are run,” he said. “Your families come together, stay together and build that sense of community at the rink. Here, I have 16 ninth graders that have come from eight different organizations… On my 20-man roster, there might only be a handful of players that have ever played together more than one or two years before they joined our team.”

“When you walk into an ice rink in Minnesota, they’re show pieces; they are prideful aspects of the community,” Ossenmacher continued. “If you lose the community rink, you lose the community model, because a for-profit model doesn’t cater to the community; it caters to profit. If you don’t continue to support it, and community rinks do close, you’ll end up chasing rinks. And when you chase rinks, you chase teams. And when you chase teams, you don’t have community anymore.”

How Can Citizens of The State of Hockey Help?

So, what can people in Minnesota do to ensure that hockey in our state remains a fixture of the community?

“Be active and make sure your voice is heard,” says Snee. “Make sure referendums for ice rinks pass on election day. Get the word out and tell people why it’s important. The community ice arena is no different than the playground or community pool or the baseball and football fields. These are assets that are such an important part of living in a vibrant place. Community-owned ice arenas in Minnesota make hockey much more affordable and accessible to a much larger group of people than it would be otherwise.”

Recently completed or approved ice arena projects in Virginia, Proctor, Cloquet, Maple Grove, Marshall and many other towns demonstrate a clear intent to preserve and celebrate the local rink as centerpieces of our communities and as gathering places that provide value to residents. This fall in Bloomington, otherwise rival players from Kennedy and Jefferson high schools have joined forces, encouraging their neighbors to support improvements to the iconic Bloomington Ice Garden.

Snee says there is a heightened awareness of how important public ownership of ice arenas is to the overall health of the game.

“The ice arena is to the winter what the high school football field is to the fall,” he said. “It’s where the community gathers, where people who played hockey 50 years ago still show up to watch the high school teams, where neighbors grab a coffee to watch their kids play and get caught up. The ice arena allows the ‘meaningful’ of hockey in Minnesota to occur.”

“In Minnesota, what we have hockey-wise is unique and special and it works extremely well,” Snee added. If you love hockey, specifically hockey in Minnesota, we need to make sure that support for the community-owned arena doesn’t start to erode. Hockey in Minnesota is as healthy as it’s ever been, and the best time to take care of something is when it’s healthy.”