Robert L’Ecuyer is the manager of the C. Douglas Cairns Recreation Arena in South Burlington, VT. I called him for background on arenas that have gone off the grid. My arena buddy, Dave Kimel from the Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Centre had told me that Bob had tried doing that with his arena, so I made the call. Bob filled me in on his experience of going off the grid — and back on again — but it was a few different numbers that he casually threw out at me that I found amazing and felt compelled to write about. Those numbers tell the story of every arena manager’s dream: approaching full capacity – which is what Bob L’Ecuyer has been able to do for the past 21 years. His story of creating demand to fill the available ice time, and the numbers that go along with the story — 40, 18 and 17 — begin now. Enjoy!
Twenty-one years. That’s not just how long the Cairns Arena has been open, but how long Bob has been its manager. At the beginning of the 1990s, the City of South Burlington was in dire need of an arena and hockey parents, players, skaters and the entire community came together to make something happen. The owner of Champlain Oil, Tony Cairns, pledged a substantial amount of money — if the rest could be raised — and, eventually, that happened. The arena, named on behalf of Tony’s father, the founder of Champlain Oil, opened in October, 1995, run by the board-run Dorset Park Skating Association. Bob was lured away from an arena in neighbouring city where he’d been the arena manager there for 21 years. He got to work immediately, putting programs together that people wanted to participate in, and run. I want to highlight that because that seems to be key to the Bob’s — and the arena’s — success.
“I rarely ran the programs myself,” he tells me. “With all of them, there is always some money to be made. So I’d design a program and find someone to run it. And that’s been successful.”
There are about 40 different programs being run out of the Cairns Arena today.
In a document outlining the history of the Cairns Arena on their website, the Board points out the importance of Bob’s contributions:
From the first day, General Manager Bob L’Ecuyer has been the hands-on guiding force who has managed the facility efficiently and successfully, balancing the needs of multiple user groups, ensuring that pretty much everyone who needs ice time gets it!
Location, Location, Location
With a brand new arena and a community hungry for ice sports, the modern, spacious (room for 600 spectators) clean and conveniently located arena just off of Interstate 89 was quickly approaching full capacity. The high school teams and minor hockey leagues needed ice time, and despite one new ice pad, the available slots for ice time was gobbled up faster than ice cream on a summer’s day. Bob and Tony Cairns were soon back in front of the South Burlington City Council, presenting their plan for a second arena which they wanted to build right next to the first one. The City gave their blessing and in 2001, the second Cairns ice pad opened, a carbon copy of its sister rink next door.
Location is key to any successful real estate venture and I would suggest that includes arenas. South Burlington borders on beautiful Lake Champlain which separates Vermont from New York State. With Lake Champlain already designated as a tourist destination, several hotels were already present in the area, so accommodations were available for tournaments. Teams within the radius of a 4-hour drive could come from as far away as Kingston, Montreal and Quebec City to the north, teams as far away as New York City, Philadelphia could be there in around 6 hours. So when the arena started hosting hockey tournaments, teams wre eager to come, and they did. And that takes us to our next number, 18.
This year, the Cairns Arenas’ twin rinks will host 18 different tournaments. Some of those tournaments will have — get this — 58 teams competing for a title! Others will bring a more reasonable 40 teams, but for South Burlington, all of them bring tourism dollars and economic prosperity to the community.
“We align with 5 different hotels,” Bob tells me. “In return for being on our accommodations list, we expect them to advertise with us and they are very gracious if we need sponsorships. It works well and is a great relationship.”
In fact that relationship works so well that the Cairns Arena was one of two venues chosen for the 2012 IIHF Women’s World Championship. Bob figures that Cairns is responsible for between 20,000-22,000 hotel nights per year. And a 2010 hospitality survey estimated tournaments netted local restaurants just under 45,000 meals.
So with leagues, figure skating, drop-in hockey, learn-to-skate, public skating and those 18 tournaments, the regular season is covered. I picked a random weekday at the beginning of October and found that there were just five available slots to rent out ice. That’s fantastic for a weekday — and for two rinks running 18 hours a day.
But what about the off-season? Anything special there? Of course there is. And that brings us to our last number: 17.
In addition to the tournaments, there are the hockey camps. Which brings us to 17.
“Each year, I have to turn away several camps,” he tells me. “But the ones we have are high quality. We research them beforehand, and we’ve got all the big ones.”
Big ones, indeed. Former Boston Bruin defenseman Pavel Navrat and goalie Tim Thomas have been running one of the Tim Thomas Hockey Camps out of the Cairns Arenas for years. A native of Flint, MI, Thomas went to the University of Vermont for four years and played hockey at Cairns when the first arena opened.
The hockey camps held at the Cairns have something for everyone. There’s a girls-only camp called “Girls 4 Hockey” run by St. Michael’s assistant coach, Meghan Sweezey; a power skating camp run by Robby Glanz, and one for professional hopefuls, Pro Ambitions Hockey Camp, run by former NHL player Jeff Serowik.
When the final camp of the summer, Hometown Hockey VT, wound up in mid-August, the new season was just about to begin…a season that is as fully booked as it was last year.
“I only have a few more years left at this,” Bob reckons. That may be, but he still has plans for the facility. He’s investigating solar power options, something he’d like to have in place before he retires..
“I still have some work to do,” he tells me.
With those dual arenas — and a schedule approaching full capacity as it always is, I’m sure he does.