With USA Hockey player registration rates increasing nationally by 21% over the past ten years — to over half a million registered players — ice time is often scarce and available only at a premium. That’s how it was in Norwalk, CT. Arenas in the surrounding Fairfield County were selling ice time north of the $500-600/hour mark, but even those high prices don’t curb the demand for ice time. Land prices are also high, so any public or private arena plans were quickly shelved, considered economically unsustainable.
Ryan Hughes is involved with both North American Rink Management and North American Rink Builders, two Norwalk-based companies specializing in arena management and the building of high-end backyard and outdoor rinks. If you’d like North American Rink Builders to build a rink in your backyard, be prepared to slap down a cool $50K or more. And it won’t be a natural ice solution either. You’ll have a refrigerated ice pad to skate on, and it’s that expertise, and the demand surpassing the supply, that gave partner Ryan Hughes the idea of building a seasonal outdoor-indoor facility.
The two companies had experience — and they knew just how much demand there was from their five-year-old SoNo Ice House, a year-round arena with a single NHL pad and a practice pad, a five minute drive away.
But where could it go?
Norwalk’s Veterans Park is a busy place in the summer, a sprawling 35 acre park on the shores of Long Island Sound. From boaters to volleyball and a dozen activities in between, the Park’s parking lot packs in the patrons at $5 a passenger car. After Labor Day long weekend, the number of park visitors dwindles. And come winter, the parking lot is empty and covered with snow.
“What if we built a seasonal arena in the park’s parking lot?” Hughes wondered. Soon the City of Norwalk’s Mayor, Harry Rilling, was cutting the ribbon to mark the opening of the temporarily permanent seasonal facility. The twin NHL ice pad in the park’s parking lot was about to become a wintertime destination for an expected 400,000 visitors a year.
Temporarily Permanent Twin Rinks
For Norwalk’s 85,000 residents, Veteran’s Park is a central as you can get, and accessible to everyone.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine something so magnificent,” Mayor Rilling said at the time of the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It’s amazing what this unique public-private partnership will do for our city. It’s going to be a real boost to our economy, and everybody is so excited to see this become a reality.”
That public-private deal has NARB&M leasing the parking lot during the park’s off-season for $1K per year for the next 10 years. From October 1st to March 30th, NARB&M has the right to erect a twin pad in a bubble dome and sell ice time to the ice-deprived high school, minor and adult hockey leagues in the area. And it’s encouraging the youth of the city to skate, with one free pass given to each of the City’s students which includes skates.
Everything about this arena is as temporary as you can get for a permanently temporary arena. The parking lot itself is asphalt.
“We lay down sand and then make a vapor barrier,” says Hughes. “As you can imagine, it takes tons of sand to get it level and within 1 inch.”
Trailers and shipping containers are used for locker rooms, offices and skate rental areas. Food trucks are on-site. There are showers, sinks and toilets in a permanent park building adjacent to where the temporarily permanent twin rinks are erected. That is easily accessible to the patrons of the arena and removes a big obstacle for Hughes and his team in setting the rink up.
A Walk in the Park? Not quite…
But it hasn’t been exactly a walk in the park for the Rinks at Veterans Park. Take the threat of hurricanes and big wind storms for example. When the State is on high alert for dangerous, windy weather, North American Rink Builders is called in to take down the vinyl skin that covers the 41,000 square feet that make up the two rinks. That’s a job that takes about 24 hours to do, and when the threat passes, they put the skin back on once again. But just as they were about to begin the build this season, they were robbed. Thieves stole all the copper they could get their hands on, which meant a delay in the start of the season as they scrambled to find replacements.
“They sliced open the piping to get the copper fittings out. And they killed the headers, stealing the copper nipples. It was a nightmare.” Hughes says. “We had to source U-bends to put the remaining miles of piping back together. As you can imagine, it was very tricky to do.”
Despite the challenges of setting up and maintaining the arena, both Hughes and the City of Norwalk are happy with the arrangement.
“We worked through a few kinks last season, especially with the parking situation and the construction on the adjacent lot, which rendered it unusable for the rink,” says Ken Hughes, the Acting Director of Recreation & Parks for the City. “Now that the lot is open, we have not had a single parking issue to date.”
Both Hughes and Hughes are proud of the free skate passes handed out to the kids.
“I can’t speak on the number of kids using the rink,” says Ken Hughes, “but every school age student in Norwalk receives a free skating pass, so we are doing our best to get the children involved.”