Rink Think

My main theory is that the primary barrier to hockey in DC is not a shortage of money or absence of hockey culture, but rather the simple lack of access to a rink. DC itself has one (ONE!) sheet accessible to the public year-round. MD and VA rinks are stuffed to capacity during the after school hours; beer leaguers like me can attest to this: our games frequently start after 11 pm, because that’s the only ice time that remains. From my experience running a team (and having to turn lots of people away) I have the sense that the area could triple the number of sheets and they would still be filled.

Haymarket – 2nd Sheet Going Up (photo by Jeff Woods)

I’m not so jejune as to suggest it’s only a matter of If You Build It, They Will Come, but if They have no place to go, it’s a sure-fire way to guarantee entropy.

So, a few questions to ponder.

  1. Where should rinks be built?
  2. What does it cost and where does the money come from initially?
  3. Where does the ongoing revenue come from/who uses the ice?

These are each huge questions, and I want to be thoughtful with the answers- so I’m going to spend time talking to experts and decision makers in our area to give you, our beloved community, the best possible information. In the meantime, here’s a brief overview of what I’ve learned so far.

Rink Location

If we’re talking about DC proper, there is a surprising amount of unused land, much of it east of the Anacostia. In zip code 20020 alone, there are over 53 million square feet of undeveloped land (the square footage of a standard sheet is ~17,000), all controlled by the federal government. Only 15 percent of the undeveloped land in southeast DC is owned privately. A brief survey of the terrain suggests that new rinks in SE DC would involve talks with Uncle Sam to either allocate funds or sell off some land.

There are unused plots in the other quadrants of The District, too. While I’m not giving up hope on rink development in NW, NE or SW, the area is experiencing Manhattan-like demand for housing: it would take something magical to persuade an entity to build a rink instead of overpriced condos and matching Starbucks/Chipotle/Panera shopping complexes.

MD and VA are wide open compared to DC’s small but mighty footprint. The DMV is rich with dispersed population centers, boasting plenty of money (both in terms of people with disposable income and entities looking to build) and open land. Rinks are currently destinations, with many people driving 30+ mile round trips to participate in hockey. It seems to me that the cornerstone of a robust hockey culture is the idea of a local rink– a place that is easy to get to that caters to the needs of the immediate community.

Rink Cost

The price of building and maintaining a rink varies wildly. Kettler Capitals Iceplex cost in excess of $40 million to build, and is an immense undertaking to operate: it had to be grandfathered onto the withering skeleton of the Ballston Mall (which is now being turned into an indoor/outdoor shopping plaza), boasts the Capitals’ training facilities, front offices, 8 locker rooms, and several large event spaces, making it easily the most expensive and well-appointed ice arena in the region.

Other facilities with more modest accommodations seem to start from the low single millions, depending on everything from state tax structure to the season construction begins in. Long story short, there is nothing cheap about building and maintaining an ice surface- and there are lessons to be learned from the facilities in our area, some of which are bustling, while others fall into disrepair.

Ongoing costs and sustainability

There seems to be consensus that ice rinks are not giant money makers (a few anecdotal sources). Those that thrive tend to be municipally subsidized and use their ice time efficiently, making smaller repairs as they are needed and avoiding the epic overhauls associated with putting off maintenance.

More in-depth research is needed, but every hockey director I’ve spoken to says they turn down more people than they allow into their programs, simply for lack of ice time. The demand is there.

Coming up, we’ll look into why counties choose to build rinks: who applies pressure, the arguments for and against, what politics get weighed, and how they decide where to put them.

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