Skate Town USA12/01/2002 01:00AM ● By Riley Polumbus
Skate Town USA
by Riley Polumbus
Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes started skating on ice her father made in their backyard. For decades, it wasn’t all that different in Steamboat Springs, where the only skating rink was in the parking lot of what is noHowelsen Ice Arena. Today, that facility attracts Olympians and hosts events unlike any in local skating history. More visitors than ever came down last winter to check out the slick nearena – including one crowd that must have made the fire marshal nervous. The 2002 USA women’s hockey team ended its pre-Olympic tour in Denver and still had eight days to go before opening ceremonies in Salt Lake City. Because of its location on the way to Utah, similar altitude and Olympic-sized sheet (one of only two in Colorado), Howelsen was the perfect location for the team’s hiatus. The women scrimmaged with the Steamboat Braves’ midget team in front of 750 fans, who packed the house to the rafters. “Our kids were star struck … we couldn’t have asked for better ambassadors,” says Tim Greene, who helped to organize the event. The players were impressed with the quality of the ice, and the 300 fans at their afternoon practice who cheered every goal and save. Team USA hosted a clinic for more than 100 girls and women and also attended a fundraising dinner, which helped defer their expenses. Was it – as it was billed – “an opportunity of a lifetime,” or was it the shade of things to come? As Tim sees it, “Steamboat’ reputation as a place to play hockey will continue to grow.” Steamboat’s skating population is expanding with its Olympic-caliber facility. Enrollment in skating programs was up 96% in 2001-2002; there were three women’s teams; and 150 adults registered to play hockey in the spring session. Although 90% of the users are locals, public skating and free learn-to-skate clinics are popular with visitors. With the largest ice sheet in Colorado, there’s plenty of room for everyone. Ice Arena Manager Stacey Foster says the arena also appeals to summer visitors as a way to beat the heat or take a vacation. “The kids can go to hockey camp while Mom and Dad can spend some time together,” she says. Steamboat is likely to attract more figure skating and hockey events. “We are definitely moving in that direction,” Stacey says. “I’d like to see an NHL team practice here in the summer.” The Mid-Winter Skating Exhibition in February features skaters from the World Arena in Colorado Springs. Four members of the U.S. Women’s team returned to teach a camp last August. Who knows? Perhaps the next Sarah Hughes will be from “Skate Town USA.” If you build it… Reminiscent of its skiing tradition, Steamboat’s skating history reflects its grassroots origins. From the early days at Howelsen Hill, ice was as challenging to make as it was to maintain. Abundant snowfall often made it physically impossible to open on a daily basis. The season was short. Steamboat’s skating enthusiasm began to blossom in the early 1980s, when the rink moved from the base of Howelsen to the rodeo grounds and finally to its present location. Jerry Dunn, an early advocate for a “real” rink, recalls that he and other dedicated locals planted the seeds: teaching kids to skate, starting the first men’s team, and building the first youth hockey program. Skaters built dasher boards, donating everything from wood to cement. These benefactors started the first “avalanche” in skating: a flood of volunteerism and a Howelsen Ice Arena Phase III, Step 2 Addition, North Elevation colossal fundraising effort that would continue for two decades. By 1988, the rink had a home, a used Zamboni and refrigeration system, homemade dasher boards, hand-me-down lights, and almost 50 kids enrolled in skating activities. Clearly the only way for programs to improve and growas to set sights on year-round ice. Already with the vision of building an Olympic-sized sheet – fitting for a town known for breeding Olympians since 1948 – the rink’s users were looking to the future. Knowing they had a ways to go, the Ice Rink Advisory Committee was established in 1989 to oversee a phased expansion plan. Local businesses and anonymous donors continued the trend of quiet contribution and by 1991, Phase I was complete. The $1.2 million project included a nerefrigeration system, an out-building to house the system and Zamboni, nedasher boards and Plexiglas, and concrete slab and footers. With the upgrade, plus the skating experience of local resident Kim Haggerty, Steamboat’s figure skating club first took to the ice in 1993. But the season was still short. Roof the Rink! Once again, it would take the whole town to raise the roof, literally, and so began Phase II, better known as the “Roof the Rink campaign.” The same Tim Greene who helped to organize the visit by the women’s Olympic team last winter spearheaded the effort. “Nobody really knew who I was, just that I worked for the ski area and I was a hockey parent,” Tim recalls. Shortly after agreeing to sit on the committee, Tim was named its president. “In April, we went to City Council for what I called the ‘State of the Rink Address,’ and they sent us out to get more community support. The campaign took on a life of its own.” The first skaters stepped onto the ice of Howelsen’s neindoor arena on Dec. 15, 1996: The rink opened on time and on budget. The enclosure generated new enthusiasm for skating, paralleling the sport’s growth in the rest of the state. After winning the Stanley Cup in June 1996, Colorado’s nehockey franchise, the Avalanche, inspired a boom in youth hockey enrollment. The valley’s first women’s hockey team took to the ice in the 1996/’97 season. With programs growing and momentum flowing, focus shifted to the quality of ice. “If you don’t want a world-class facility, I’m not interested in the job,” Jim Gregoire told Stacey in December 1999 when she asked him to be the rink’s operations specialist. J Jim’s hero was Buddy Werner; both men lived in Steamboat in the ‘60s. “Those were the dark ages of alpine skiing,” he laughs. The same was true for ice-skating. “I remember they flooded a field at Howelsen somewhere near the jumps,” Jim recalls. Just as Buddy helped open the Steamboat Ski Area 40 years ago, Jim sathe opportunity in 1999 to play a role in building a great place to skate. He took the job. Jim brought his experience from competitive speed skating and managing ice arenas in Rock Springs, Wyo., and Boulder to Steamboat. He believes the sheet is the main product. “We take it seriously,” Jim explains. “That’s the main thing, we care. Making ice is 50% caring.” The main component of the $3 million Phase III was the top-of-the-line refrigeration system and a special ceiling to keep the heat out and cold in. The system, which cuts utilities by 40%, can also maintain a second sheet of ice. Again, locals drove a funding effort and in July 2001, they broke ground on the back addition of the arena to house the plant and a HVAC system dehumidifier, enabling ice to be made in warm weather. Howelsen was well on its way to reaching its much-sought “world-class” status. In 2001, interior upgrades included new dasher boards with tempered glass, bleachers to seat 560, four locker rooms, a room for officials, first aid room and two offices. These improvements enabled Steamboat to host competitions for the first time ever and put Howelsen on the map of the skating world. Spectators could remove down jackets and relax in the heated bleachers. Last summer, ground was broken to build a nelobby; the next step is to add a second level and observation deck. Steamboat is acclaimed for its world-class skiing and for producing more Winter Olympians than any other community in the country. But thus far, the town has yet to produce any internationally acclaimed skaters. Nowith Team Volant, Steamboat’s synchronized skating team, 50 members in the figure skating club and 250 youth hockey players, including two girls’ teams, it is only a matter of time before Steamboat’s Olympic tradition takes hold on the ice. For now, Howelsen Ice Arena can be satisfied with its growing reputation. Steamboat is not only known for its fabulous powder, but also for its fast ice.