Hockey seasons saved in towns that lost arenas

Having lost their home arenas, minor hockey associations in Orillia, Ont., and Grimshaw, Alta., saved their seasons thanks to community groups and neighbouring associations that sacrificed ice time.

Community groups and neighbouring towns came to the rescue

Of all the elements required to run a minor hockey association, an arena is perhaps the most essential.

But this year, two minor hockey organizations completed their season without one.

On Oct. 15, 2008, a fire at the arena in Grimshaw, Alta., left players with nowhere to play.

And last Jan. 15, city staff in Orillia, Ont., padlocked the arena doors due to safety concerns — just before the Orillia Minor Hockey Association playoffs —  without a word of warning to OMHA officials.

In both cases, hockey organizers were left scrambling to find ice time for their teams. The OMHA, for instance, had to acquire 54 hours of ice time for 740 players.

Miraculously, not one game was forfeited in either association.

"Everything was pretty good … it was just more expensive," said Angie Konowalyk, vice president of the Grimshaw Minor Hockey Association.

"It was fine, fine actually," said Cathy O'Connor, OMHA vice-president.

With their hockey seasons recently wrapped up, they say they managed to pull it off thanks to a collection of caring community members, local organizations and hockey associations in nearby towns.

In Orillia, the local figure skating club gave up much of the ice time at its arena so hockey games could be played. The city's recreation department also cancelled public skating completely so hockey players could have ice time.

Sacrifices made

Adult hockey and girls hockey was also sacrificed for the cause.

"We were tremendously thankful, because without them we couldn't have operated the house league program at all," O'Connor said.

"We managed to get every child to play all of their games," she said.

Rep teams were affected, too: Some home games weren't played at home; some practices began as early as 6 a.m. and younger teams had to practise as late as 9 p.m.

James Evans, director of marketing for Orillia's junior A team, said community members also came together to help the minor hockey association.

"There were people who had ponds or lakes near their homes, they would smooth it out so teams had somewhere to practice," he said.

Despite the unconventional conditions and schedule, players managed to adapt — with Orillia's novice and minor peewee teams winning the championships.

Outdoor rink no solution

In Grimshaw, a town of 2,500 about 500 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, building an outdoor rink on the site of the burned arena was the first attempted solution.

Hockey officials had it ready within a month of the fire, but an incredibly cold winter meant it couldn't be used for games.

The town also hadn't been able to install proper gates, which barred the rink from official use, according to Hockey Alberta standards.

That meant Grimshaw teams had to travel to other towns — including Berwyn, 22 km away — for both home and away games.

"It was more expensive this year, and we also had to find refs willing to travel that far," Konowalyk said.

"We definitely lost a lot of players," she added. "We didn't have a boys peewee team because of it."

Grimshaw hosted an atom tournament but had to host it in another town, Hines Creek. Some teams declined to participate since Hines Creek was even farther away and didn't have proper amenities.

Hours at the arena

Michelle Rowse, who lives just outside of Grimshaw, has five kids playing hockey on four different teams. This season, she said, it was common to spend five or six hours a night at an arena 25 minutes away.

Unfortunately, Konowalyk isn't optimistic that next year will be different.

"Everyone wants to know when we're getting an arena, but I think it will be the same situation next year," she said, noting that various fundraisers have been planned to begin raising money for a new facility. 

A solution is in the works for Orillia: A twin-pad arena has been planned, but that won't open until at least 2010.

In the meantime, steel support beams will be installed over the summer into the existing arena that was declared unsafe.

O'Connor is pleased there's a temporary solution but points out it's not ideal.

"Every 14 feet there will be a steel [beam] from floor to ceiling. It will be right in the sight line," she said. "Yeah, it will be worth a trip for people to take a picture of that."