Five months of travel hockey, with one more to go, have certainly taught me a thing or two. One, an EZ pass is a good thing and two, books on CD are an absolute necessity.
With games in Gorham, Biddeford, Augusta, Yarmouth and treks to Hooksett, New Hampshire and Moncton, St. John and St. Stephen, New Brunswick we’ve been all over this region and I’m not even running for office. One of the more interesting aspects of all this travel is the vast disparity in the state of individual ice rinks.
Zane’s Maine Jr. Black Bear Tier II Squirt (9-10 yr olds) team has played in cathedrals of hockey like the Alfond Arena and decrepit little barns on the outskirts of town that you have to drive through an oil refinery to find.
We’ve strapped on his leg pads in luxurious dressing rooms in St. Stephen and tiny closets in St. John. His little brother and I, and on occasion his mom and grandmothers, have experienced the freezer like conditions of the Ice Arena and the comfort of a bar and grill with an overlook of the ice in Moncton. We’ve perched on rickety boards and concrete platforms and we’ve eaten things it’s best not to tell the spouse about. So let us review the many rinks we’ve been to, what’s been done well and what could use an improvement or two…or perhaps a bulldozer.
BEST MOMENT FEATURING A LITTLE BROTHER: Biddeford Ice Arena (Southern Maine Breakers): I vaguely recall our one trip to this building. It’s a decent old barn though the locker room was small and featured some open door toilets. The highlight of our game there was Augi walking up to the coaches and telling them Han Solo died, thus earning the nick-name “Spoiler Alert”. The ice was decent and the place has a pro-shop. I can’t comment on any concessions because we were only there for one game and then it was up to Gorham!
BEST LIGHTING: Gorham/USM (Southern Maine Breakers): The University of Southern Maine rink in Gorham is a lovely and modern structure that features Olympic size ice. The larger surface is impressive but parents may need to pack binoculars to watch their player go into the far corner. The locker rooms are good sized, there’s a pro-shop and the upper concourse has a decent snack-bar. The arena is a cold one but not one of the coldest. The real highlight of this area is the Blue Pig Diner just down the road. Stop by for big burgers, pancakes, coffee, lots of good stuff before you head home (or between games if there’s time).
BEST WARM VIEWING ROOM: Yarmouth (Casco Bay Mariners): The Travis Roy Arena on the campus of North Yarmouth Academy has the distinction of being the only rink in Maine to feature a ‘head’s-up’ line. This 40” stripe of orange paint is intended to help skaters be aware of their proximity to the boards, sort of a warning track, in an effort to reduce injuries. It’s a good idea that may catch on though there is no hard data as yet to indicate it’s effectiveness. The arena itself feature good ice, small locker rooms, a warm room that overlooks the visitor’s end, and an acceptable level of chill down on the floor. The ice level viewing area is hampered, however, by the narrowness of the overall structure, putting fans at awkward angles with large orange painted steel girders often getting in the way. Also, the concessions are limited to a guy selling hot dogs, chips and sodas though there are a number of options very close by including a Mr. Bagel just steps away.
BEST WAITING AREA: Auburn (Auburn Gladiators): The Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn is a difficult place to find that first time around, sitting as it does on a hill behind a mall but once there the experience is an excellent one (Especially when you beat the first place Gladiators!) It doesn’t look like much on the outside but within those dull, brown, corrugated walls are two rinks with a concession/viewing area/game room on the second level that overlooks both. The food is decent enough though the snack-bar is understaffed (at least when we were there) but the locker rooms are good sized and the seating areas are quite fine for both the “Championship” arena and the “Secondary” ice pit.
BEST SNACK: Augusta (SAM/Moose): After the collapse of the old structure, the Bank of Maine Ice Vault was built and it features my favorite snack bar item in all the state. Sidle on up to the café in a warm room that showcases a large fireplace and lots of tables and order the Hockey Special (an egg n’ cheese n’ bacon on an English Muffin). For whatever reason they do that thing right down there. The arena itself is aptly named temperature wise. Very nice locker rooms and good ice though. It features an excellent pro-shop and a Ground Round/Bowling Alley next door where the staff know you have to get back for the second game. One bit of advice, be prepared to get frustrated trying to get to the place. You have to get off an exit early, go the wrong way, take a quick left to take a U-turn to get back going the right way, take a right on a street that makes you think you’re about to get back on the highway and then miss the first entrance road but catch the second one if you’re not blind with rage and tears by this point.
Rinks we didn’t travel to this year: Kent’s Hill (Lovely and Cold), Sukee (Old and funky), Houlton (Way up North) and, I’m sure, a few others.
OUT OF STATE:
BEST PLACE TO WIN A REALLY BIG TROPHY – Hookset, New Hampshire: The home of the Manchester Jr. Monarchs is much like the Norway Savings Bank Arena in that it has two rinks and an upper level concourse. The secondary rink, however, lacks any fan seating areas. There are two concrete triangles that hover over the corners but they ain’t exactly comfortable. The players can hear you from this perch, however, which can be both a good and bad thing. The locker rooms are big but smell of all manner of funk. Major upside, the café serves beer, a nice addition to a night game. Bonus: Zane’s team won the Black Cat Classic earlier in the season.
BEST WAY TO FIT FOUR RINKS IN ONE BUILDING: Moncton, NB. The Superior Propane Centre features four rinks under one roof as well as a bar and grill that overlooks most of them. One of the rinks is home to several junior teams and features stadium seating. The other three make do with ice level SRO and overhanging corner benches that at least allow you a place to sit and drink your Molson while you watch the kids play. There is a pro-shop and a lot of (mostly) friendly Canadians. It’s a long drive from Orono, about 5 hours – a bit more with an ice storm – but the Hampton Inn has a 90’ waterslide that will absolutely exhaust your team (which they’ll pay for in the third period of the morning game).
MOST ICE RINKS IN ONE AREA: St. John, NB. This city of roughly 125,000 people seems to boast one ice rink for every four of them and about three times as many Tim Horton’s. The rinks vary in upkeep and décor from an old school civic center that looked so much like an old school I drove past it twice to a very old school barn the interior of which looks like it’s been slathered in mustard and smells about the same. The lockers are decent enough but do your self a favor and stop at one of the five Tim Horton’s on the way rather than risk the snack bar. The other two rinks we visited up there were similar in that the featured hard ice and little, bitty, teensy, tiny locker rooms (at least for us Americans). The best part of St. John is the Delta Hotel which connects to the downtown mall, the central market, the aquatic center, the Hilton, the New Brunswick Museum and a whole heck of a lot of other stuff. Check in took awhile but once on the floor the kids were able to enjoy a very liberal view on floor hockey in the hallway and a large and deep hot tub.
MOST FABULOUS ARENA ALL YEAR: St. Stephen, NB (St. Stephen Spartans): The Garcelon Civic Centre is, by far, the newest and swankiest arena we visited this year. The ice is lovely, the benches glorious, the locker rooms enormous, and the seating just grand. Parking sucks and we didn’t try the snack bar but the upper concourse doubles as a track for the fitness center to folks trying to get there cardio in can enjoy a youth hockey game at the same time. Also included in the facility is a community pool complete with kids area and waterslide. Neat! All I really want from them is a Hampton Inn next door and a weekend tournament. This is the sort of place I’d love to see in our area. Speaking of which…
BEST PLACE TO WATCH A HOCKEY GAME IN THE COUNTRY: The Alfond Arena, Orono. (Maine Jr. Black Bears) The former home of such legends as Paul Karyia, Shawn Walsh, John Tortorella, Bob Beers, and current NHL’rs Jimmy Howard, Ben Bishop, Gustav Nyquist, Ben Hutton and Devin Shore (among others), no building in the state has such history and pedigree. Take an amble along the main concourse and check out both the history of UMaine Hockey and the long line of players that have gone on to play in the NHL. There are also opportunities to stay for a men’s or women’s game if you arrive on the right weekend and possible meet a Black Bear in the stands or on the ice.
The Alfond is routinely cited as the best place to watch a college hockey game and a primary reason why recruits from far away consider coming to Maine, just don’t try to get a hot dog during your kids pee-wee game against the Breakers as the University of Maine does not open it’s concessions during Jr. Black Bear games and only allows concessions on special occasions. Worse, there’s nothing within walking distance so plan to bring your own snacks and beverages or make a mad dash down the road to Mikey D’s, Dunkin D’s or Timmy H’s. Upside, downtown Orono is only a few minutes drive and features a host of eating and drinking establishments including the original Pat’s Pizza, Woodman’s, the Family Dog, Bear Brew, Verve, the Roost, Margaritas, Thai Orchid, Harvest Moon and at least three breweries (another one may have popped up during the writing of this article). Lot’s of after game options. Back to the rink!
The Alfond is a comfortable stadium that feels a bit empty with only a few dozen spectators. The warmer temps do sometimes translate to mushy ice when it gets humid and with college level skaters ripping it up six days a week it’s been known to swallow a mini-mite or two despite the best efforts of the rink staff.
Skate sharpening is available and the locker rooms vary in size. Try to get the visitors room underneath the stands just so you can say, “I changed in the same room as Jack Eichel!” Do NOT get stuck in Locker room B unless you like changing in a phone-booth. Still, every team in the state should get to play there at least once if only to stand at center ice or tuck into the goal crease and image, “what if?”
BEST TURN AROUND OF A FORMER DUMP: Penobscot Ice Arena, Brewer. (Brewer Witches, Maine Jr. Black Bears). Under the ownership of George Bishop and the management of Randy Marsh the frozen, decrepit, hell-pit of a pockmarked frozen swamp pond that was once the Ice Arena has undergone such a remarkable transformation that a group of NHL legends were not too put out by playing there last Monday night. Gone are the ice on the locker room walls and the piles of trash under the stands. The showers have hot water, the mold has been power scrubbed away and there’s a sizable locker room dedicated to girls. Oh, it’s still the coldest rink in the state (bring extra blankets, pants, heated underwear and a survival tent if you’re staying for more than one game) and could use a warm room with a view of the action but the ice is good, the chocolate hot and the locker rooms heated. Thus, with the improvements at PIA the title of worst arena in the state now goes to…
WORST ARENA IN THE STATE I’M PROUD TO CALL HOME: Sawyer Arena, Bangor. (Maine Jr. Black Bears). The ice at Sawyer is generally considered the best in Maine which can be attributed to the almost PIA level of cold the old barn is kept at as well as the dedicated staff who are routinely helpful and accommodating. The concessions are almost always open with high-points being the chicken nuggets and fries (avoid the corn-dog). Having said that, the locker rooms are cramped and crowded and the hallway way too thin. There are holes in the walls harkening back to the days when Sawyer was an open air facility and while the warm room does offer a view from the home team side of the ice the windows are scratched, beaten, smeared and feature a wooden frame every four feet making viewing difficult.
Sight lines don’t get much better up in the stands as only a few choice spots on the top row give much of a whole ice view. The lighting is dim, the benches warped and the girders rusted. At least the bathrooms are warm.
If there’s another place that needs to be nominated for the Kraft Hockeville USA rink upgrade contest more than Sawyer I’ll eat one of those corn dogs again.
Really, Bangor needs a new, modern ice arena. It could be placed next to the current building or near the Mall where that empty Circuit City/Halloween Store building is or moved downtown near the Cross Center or even better, on the waterfront with views of the mighty Penobscot! We might hope for one like they have up in St. Stephen which serves as a municipal fitness and convention center but I’d settle for the double-rink experience of the Norway Savings Bank Arena or the ski-lodge like atmosphere of the Ice Vault.
I would suggest a little-sibling play area like those structures they have at certain McDonalds or the Ellsworth Tennis Center so the rink rats have a place to enjoy themselves. I would also suggest building two half-sized sheets for the U-8 crowd. If we got Cross Insurance involved we could call them the Cross-Ice Cross Insurance Rinks. We might even add a library and a Gunn’s Hockey Shop outlet. If we could get Stephen and Tabitha King to contribute we could truly call it a “House of Horrors” for visiting teams. I now appoint myself New Bangor Ice Arena Commissioner and say, “Make it so!”
This has been your State of the State’s Hockey Rinks. Next week: The State of the State’s Backyard Rinks or How to Make Ice in an Unexpected Heat Wave!