2013-11-15 / People

Arenas fill growing need for ice time

Biddeford and University of New England facilities feel the impact of civic center renovations
By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – With the Cumberland County Civic Center closed for renovations, and a new junior hockey team – the Maine Wild – calling the Biddeford Ice Arena its home, demand for the facility has increased.

Jim Mulligan, president of the Biddeford Youth Hockey Association, said the Biddeford Ice Arena is the organization’s home arena, but when it’s not available, they have a backup – the University of New England’s Harold Alfond Forum Ice Arena in Biddeford.

The Maine Wild is in its first year, and with the civic center unavailable, many high school hockey programs are also renting ice elsewhere, Mulligan said.

“Renting from UNE has nothing to do with a lack of commitment (to Biddeford Ice Arena),” Mulligan said. “It’s just that the Maine Wild have taken up a lot of ice and we’ve grown and taken more ice, too. When there’s overflow, and Biddeford Ice Arena can’t provide time, we go to UNE.”

DJ Whitten, manager of the Alfond Forum, said, “Indeed there has been an increasing lack of ice time during the traditional skating season, a problem that has no doubt been exaggerated by the current renovations of the Cumberland County Civic Center.”

Whitten said the Kennebunk High School hockey team practices and plays all of its home games at the University of New England facility, “a tradition that started during our inaugural season last year.”

In addition to Kennebunk, Whitten said other school programs have been scheduling ice time this year because of the civic center’s closure.

“We play the role of a supplemental venue that groups can reach out to once they have obtained and utilized all of their ice time allocated at their respective venues – a trend that has indeed increased this year as a result of the CCCC being off-line,” Whitten said.

Cape Elizabeth, South Portland and Cheverus are schools that traditionally contract dozens of hours at the Cumberland County Civic Center, which have booked time at the forum this year, Whitten said.

Rates for rental of the facility are $225 per hour at peak times and $185 per hour at non-peak times, Monday through Friday, before 1 p.m. or after 9 p.m.

Caitlin Cashman, coach of the women’s ice hockey team in Scarborough, said her program has booked time at both University of New England and the MHG Ice Centre in Saco.

“We’re lucky we have ice almost every day, but the times aren’t ideal as the majority of our practices are at 5:30 a.m., which is new for our program,” Cashman said. “We also will play home games at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, which also isn’t ideal for students, but we don’t have any other options. In seasons past at (civic center), we played Saturday at noon, which was great.”

On Saturday, Nov. 2, the association sponsored Try Hockey for Free, a biannual event, at the Alfond Forum. The event is a nationwide program sponsored by USA Hockey, designed to give children the experience of trying out hockey as a sport and getting familiar with the game, ice and equipment. The association provides equipment for the children to use for free.

“We’re always trying to find ways of expanding access to (hockey),” Mulligan said.

The York County Skating Club also holds Learn to Skate lessons at Biddeford Ice Arena twice a week – 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays and 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays. The arena also has public skating hours, Monday through Friday, 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., Fridays from 7:30 to 10 p.m. and Sundays, 1:30 to 3 p.m.

The Biddeford Youth Hockey Association fields a number of youth teams, including three Mites teams for children age 8 and younger, two Squirt teams for 9- and 10-year-olds, and two Peewee teams for players aged 11 and 12. Three Midget teams are also fielded – one for teenagers 18 and younger, and two for those 16 and younger.

While most of the association’s teams play in the Biddeford Ice Arena, one of the Mites teams plays every Tuesday at the university’s Alfond Ice Arena.

Biddeford Ice Arena hosts numerous men’s league games, and both Biddeford High School girls’ hockey and Cape Elizabeth High School hockey programs have rented the facility over the next several weeks.

Steve Crane, general manager for the civic center, said the target date for substantial completion of the center, which is located on Spring Street in Portland, is Jan. 15.

However, Crane said a definitive date for completion cannot be counted on until the work is actually done because contractors remind him that there could always be unforeseen issues with the renovation. Additionally, Crane said the center will need additional time to obtain required occupancy permits from the city.

Even though the American Hockey League professional ice hockey team, the Portland Pirates, announced at the beginning of its season that it would play all of its home games at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, Crane said the civic center’s board of trustees are “absolutely committed to providing ice” in the renovated center.

“Even though there are newer rinks everywhere, like the one in UNE,” said Crane, “from November, at the start of school hockey season, through March, there is still a tremendous demand for ice.”

The Portland Pirates were originally scheduled to play the first part of their season in Lewiston and the remainder in the newly renovated civic center, but a legal dispute between the center’s board of trustees and Pirates management led to the team’s decision to play the entire season in Lewiston.

On Oct. 21, the Saco City Council voted to give Maine Hockey Group Inc. an option to purchase more than 12 acres of land on Lund Road, which could be used as a permanent home facility for the Portland Pirates. The team already practices at the OA Performance Center on Lund Road.

Biddeford Ice Arena, which is owned by the city of Biddeford, was renovated in 2010 to improve egress and install sprinkler and alarm systems. The city paid for it with a revenue bond from Biddeford Savings Bank.

City Finance Director Curt Koehler said the arena is managed under a contract with the York County Arena Association, a nonprofit that pays the city $36,000 annually to cover the city’s debt service on the arena’s renovation and improvement costs. Koehler said the combined loans for renovations in both 2002 and 2010 total $535,000.

“They’ve done a ton of work in there,” Mulligan said. “I’d put it up against any community rink.”

Office staff at the arena said they would not disclose the arena’s rates without approval from Craig King, general manager for Biddeford Ice Arena.

Attempts to reach King were unsuccessful.

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