In Richfield, a city with a proud hockey history, kids today are more likely to play soccer than hockey. That's a scary trend for the city-owned Richfield Ice Arena.
With ice time rentals declining, the arena had a $220,000 budget shortfall last year. Perhaps more alarming was that U.S. Figure Skating, a steady user of the arena over the years, told the city that because the building lacks the design and meeting space to host big events, it intended to seek ice time elsewhere.
As city officials were wringing their hands over what looked like a dire future for the 1971 arena, in walked an apparent savior.
The Minnesota Magicians, a junior hockey team, were looking for a home. Scott Meyer the team coach and a minority owner, liked what he saw: 1,400 seats that circled the rink, and prime game times available on Friday and Saturday nights.
"I think it's one of the better-looking classic arenas, with seating all around the ice right next to the action," Meyer said. "It's centrally located, very easy to get to, and right next to Edina, Bloomington and Minneapolis."
The Magicians, who began playing at the arena this fall, are working on a 15-year lease agreement with the city. Richfield plans to invest $2 million in the building over the next few months, adding a locker room for the Magicians, expanding the lobby, adding classrooms and a training facility.
City Manager Steve Devich said the Magicians arrived just as the arena was at "a turning point."
"There is so much competition in the metro area for ice time," he said. "If you want to take your ice arena to the next level and make it competitive, you have to do something to make it special.
"I can't think of a better way to accentuate our ice arena than by having this junior hockey team playing out of our arena."
Richfield's experience comes as ice arenas around the Twin Cities face a number of challenges. In White Bear Lake, the Vadnais Sports Center, which is in default on its debt, recently went back on the market when a lead bidder missed a deadline in the purchase process. And at the State Fairgrounds, the Lee & Rose Warner Coliseum ice rink will be closed in February due to decreased demand and high costs to replace icemaking equipment.
Magicians part of NAHL
The Magicians are one of three North American Hockey League (NAHL) teams in Minnesota, and the first such team in the Twin Cities since the St. Paul Vulcans shut down in 2000. The NAHL is one of two junior leagues in the nation for players ages 16 to 20 who have to try out to make the team but do not pay to play as they try to jump to college or pro hockey.
Meyer is part of a Minnesota-based ownership group that bought a dormant NAHL franchise out of New Mexico. He said the Richfield arena was the perfect size for his club, which will play 30 to 36 games per season at the arena from September through March.
With tickets priced from $8 to $13, Meyer said that this season the team has drawn from 400 to 900 fans per game. The team has players from Russia, Latvia, Sweden and Finland and notable local players, including Eagan's Nick Kuchera and Sam Wolfe.
The city has already broken ground for an arena addition for a $565,000 locker room for the Magicians.
"The city has been a great partner," Meyer said. "At the end, we hope it helps the city and the players."
Jim Topitzhofer, Richfield parks and recreation director, said that at present the Magicians are paying only for ice time. He said when the locker room is ready and the lease is signed, the team also will pay a lease rate expected to exceed $50,000.
'Good for the city'
City Council members were eager to approve the arena improvements, and the city has changed its ordinances to allow beer sales at games. Food also is available for what Topitzhofer described as a growing fan base.
The Magicians are "good not only for the viability of the ice arena, but good for the city," he said. "It's another thing to do with your family, with a team you can get to know and support right here, without having to go downtown or pay for parking."
Meyer said the Magicians hope to partner with the city on such events as summer hockey camps, which Topitzhofer said the renovated arena will easily accommodate. New classroom space also will be used for rental events like birthday parties.
The arena renovation will be paid for with bonds that are paid back mostly with user fees and money from the Magicians' lease, Topitzhofer said.
He said U.S. Figure Skating has already indicated renewed interest in using the Richfield arena after the improvements are made. "It's all part of remaining vital," he said. "With the building able to host more large events, it will make us stronger."