April in the Baltimore-Washington region means it’s time for baseball, cherry blossoms, outdoor festivals and simply opening the windows. It also usually means an appearance by the NHL’s Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
This year was no exception, with the Caps struggling with this year’s first round opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, as the locals’ archrival Pittsburgh Penguins awaited their second round matchup at press time. The key herein is to know that when the Caps are playing well — and the team just won its second consecutive President’s Trophy, which is awarded for the best regular season record — the area hockey community is ablaze with enthusiasm. That translates into more young people getting their kicks with their skates, frequently within high school or area hockey programs.
However, for hockey fanatics in Anne Arundel County, that enthusiasm can lead to frustration. That’s because there is only one sheet of hockey-ready ice available to the public in the county, at the 25-plus-year-old Piney Orchard Ice Arena, the former practice facility of those very Caps.
The only other options in Anne Arundel are the rink at the U.S. Naval Academy, which is usually spoken for by its team and its youth program; or at nearby Quiet Waters Park, also in Annapolis, which lacks glass reinforcement above the boards and really only can be used by the youngest skaters (or “mites”), as it was intended for public enjoyment.
While there are numerous other options in the Baltimore-Washington region, the question remains: Does Anne Arundel County need a second sheet of ice to serve its market and potentially boost the area’s game?
Observers who say yes are quick to point to the growth of the game that has occurred in recent years. Kevin Lancaster, an area technology entrepreneur and youth hockey coach whose son plays in the Navy Youth Hockey league, is among them.
“Today, many of the Anne Arundel County high schools have teams, yet are forced to play out of the county due to the lack of available rink time,” he said. “From that issue alone, we know the demand is there.”
Bob Lime, a board member with Navy Youth Hockey and head coach of the Broadneck Middle School team, agreed, saying that “many people” are talking about building a rink in Anne Arundel County. “In youth hockey, ice is needed from 6–10 p.m. during the week, then all day on the weekends. But those timeframes aren’t often available, so there are some cumbersome arrangements that have been made” so county kids, including three of his, can play.
“We live in Arnold,” said Lime, “but they’ve had to play in Fort Washington [in Prince George’s County at Tucker Road Ice Rink, which was damaged in a recent fire] and at Ice World, in Abingdon, in Harford County [which is owned by Blackstreet Capital Holdings, of Rockville, which also owns the Piney Orchard rink], as does the Severna Park middle school co-op team, for instance.”
While he noted that his son’s teams “have been on the schedule” at Piney Orchard, he added that, “The county also misses out on hosting tournaments, because we don’t have the facilities. My kids have played in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia,” he said. “The sport is growing, and we have charts to prove it. We created a PowerPoint presentation” that was shown to county officials, “and we have the right people in our court.”
Officials from Anne Arundel County did not respond to requests for comment.
News in Bowie
Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, Lancaster said, have several sheets of ice, including the three (plus one outdoors) at The Gardens Ice House, in Laurel.
“That’s the best facility in the area,” he said, noting that it draws from various counties and is situated close to Howard and Anne Arundel. “That flexibility also gives management the ability to host those tournaments a couple of times a year. They pull teams in from the mid-Atlantic and beyond, including New England and even Canada.”
And when the multipliers come into play, those tournaments equal big wins on the bottom line.
“Several dozen teams, times 12-to-15 kids on a team, plus their parents, that’s a big deal when you consider that they need lodging, have to eat and may do some sightseeing while they’re here,” Lancaster said. “It’s similar to the impact that’s generated by soccer tournaments when they come to the area.
“There are independent groups that are behind [such a] project,” he said, noting that “from what I understand,” a new facility has been discussed in nearby Bowie for about 20 years. “We just need to get steam behind it, and the county needs to offset some of the expenses.”
On that note, Carrie Robertson, manager of the City of Bowie Ice Arena, said her organization is “in the process of designing a new, $25–30 million, multi-use facility on Church Road (near Freeway Airport), on land that the city bought from the Maryland-National Capital Park Planning Commission. It is slated to include not only two sheets of ice, but also five basketball courts and other amenities.
Noting other facilities in the county, including the seasonal Herbert Wells Ice Rink, in College Park, Robertson concurred to say, “Hockey is booming, and that can be attributed to the NHL Learn to Play initiative, which involves giving gear to the kids,” she said, adding that, “Part of the impetus for this new facility is that we know that tournaments generate tax revenue.”
She added that the new Bowie facility is slated to open in 2019–20, at which point the Bowie Ice Arena, which is located at the Allen’s Pond, would “cease to operate.”
Also on Board
Nelson Burton can also vouch for the continuing rise of hockey. Burton, who played for the Caps in the late 1970s, runs programs for ages 6 and up, and for adults, as owner of Nelson Hockey, which is based at Piney Orchard Ice Arena.
During the spring, he’s at the facility almost every day. “It’s slower in the summer, but then we ramp back up for the fall,” he said. “We have about 300 people in the program, and we could enroll more, if more ice time was available. That’s especially true when the Caps are doing well.”
So Burton is also among those who are aboard the Zamboni when it comes to building a new rink in the county. “I’ve been doing this here for a few years, and I think a new facility would expand the number of programs.”
He noted that expansion could possibly take place right under his nose, as there is an unused, overgrown lot immediately behind the Piney Orchard rink that was left empty during the original construction for just that purpose.
“Piney Orchard has been a great complex,” Burton said, noting that, when it opened, it was considered by some observers to be “among the finer practice facilities in the NHL. The area behind the rink was developed several years ago.”
When approached about the possibility of a second sheet being built at Piney Orchard, officials from Blackstreet did not return requests for comment.
Linda Laughlin is co-owner (with husband Craig, another former Cap and the long-time color analyst of the team’s games on CSN Mid-Atlantic) of the Gambrills-based Network Hockey Development Program, which used to operate out of Piney Orchard and is now at The Gardens Ice House. She’s also interested in a new rink.
“There will always be a basic interest in the youth market in any city that has an NHL team,” said Laughlin, “but sure, we could use another rink in Anne Arundel County. We’d get more kids out and be able to run more programs.”
She noted that while “Hockey is a winter sport, the more serious players play year-round, though the average travel player plays soccer or lacrosse in the summer. But with a new rink and the potential for new programs would also come the need for concerted promotion of the facility and what it makes available.”
And it’s important to remember that hockey, unlike most other sports, is a game that kids need to be introduced to.
“Everyone can walk and run, but not everyone can skate,” Laughlin said. “Once the kids can skate, they can move to basic beginning hockey skills.
“So, I don’t think just building a new facility is enough. You have to promote the programs and the sport,” she said. “In fact there are probably enough programs for the facilities we have right now. But you have to promote more programs, with instructors who are knowledgeable to teach them the game the right way.”
Like Anne Arundel, Howard County has just one regulation facility, the Columbia Ice Rink. The Columbia Association (CA)-run facility is used to service the community first, but CA also rents the rink during off hours.
“However, during hockey season, we have few opportunities to rent the rink. It’s only available at odd hours, like 6 a.m. or late at night for the adults,” General Manager Rachelle Weisberg said, “with ice demands high only from October to February,” and then only after school. “So while most high school teams in Howard County play and practice here, I don’t feel the need to add a second sheet of ice.”
Speaking of early alarms, Clai Carr, founder and president of The Gardens Ice House, recalls the days when his kids were growing up and everyone had to rise, shine and play at an ungodly hour; interestingly, however, that’s not happening at his facility.
“From mid-October to mid-March, there’s heavy demand. But we’re not sold out,” Carr said. “The rest of the year is problematic. People say use the rink for soccer and lacrosse, but people don’t want to be indoors when they can play outside.”
However, is it notable that there is only one sheet of ice in Anne Arundel County?
“Yes, it is,” Carr said, adding that, “We can hardly be closer to Anne Arundel’s or Howard County’s borders; we located here with those areas in mind. Still, it is my opinion that the regional marketplace can support another major regional ice facility — even though we have physically been open for 22 years, and only last year did we start making money.”
While that’s some food for thought, know that if something really, really big happens in mid-June and the Capitals finally bring home that elusive Stanley Cup, the effect on the region’s youth hockey could be seismic.
“If the Caps win, the demand will go up even more,” said Lancaster. “After the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup [in 2006], there was an explosion in the popularity of hockey in Raleigh. And that’s what would happen here.”