There will be less travel time ahead for many Okotoks hockey parents.
The expansion of Pason Centennial Arena opens today at 4 p.m., adding a fourth NHL-sized sheet of ice to Okotoks’ inventory, which will make for 25 per cent more ice time for user groups like Okotoks Minor Hockey, which has been sending players to other communities to play their games.
“We’re excited to add a new rink to the community and for our organization to add some ice,” said OMHA president Jeff Stewart. With it continuing to grow we could almost use another two rinks.”
There are more than 1,400 players registered in OMHA right now, which he said is a huge statistic compared to other communities like Lethbridge, which has three times the population and only 1,200 young hockey players.
The difference is, Lethbridge has eight arenas at its disposal, whereas OMHA players are forced to have games and practices outside of Okotoks, like at Scott Seaman Arena in Heritage Heights and other small towns like Black Diamond, Blackie and Stavely, he said.
“Our team is an atom team, and we’ve had to play the other Okotoks team in the past two weeks, once in Claresholm and once in Stavely,” said Stewart. “We’re travelling out of town to have two Okotoks teams play each other.”
He said the additional ice will help alleviate some of the pressure for scheduling next season. For now, travel will still be necessary even with more ice, because playoff and provincial schedules push demand to its maximum.
The worst-case scenario would be to have to cap registration, which used to be done in Okotoks but OMHA has avoided it for the last few years.
“We want to make sure anyone who wants to play hockey can play,” said Stewart. “Putting the round peg through the square hole is our goal.”
He said the organization is also excited to have its own office included in the expansion to help with administration of an ever-growing program.
It’s been two years of working closely with the Town to make it happen, and he said they’re grateful to staff for being accommodating.
“Everything they’ve done to give OMHA a voice at the table has been outstanding,” said Stewart. “We’ve raised money as an organization to have a bit of a say, but they’ve been more than gracious with how they worked with us on this.”
Susan Laurin, Okotoks community services director, said the Town is thrilled to be opening its new space at Pason to open ice time to its user groups. Even better, the $15-million twinning of the arena was completed on time and on budget, she said.
The arena is already 100 per cent booked during peak hours – 4 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. weekdays and 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. weekends – and 60 per cent booked for daytime, she said.
It will accommodate more than just OMHA. Having more ice time means there is additional time for girls hockey, daytime programs and sledge hockey, she said.
“One of the things we’re super excited about on the new NHL ice is that it’s actually built to sledge standards, so we’ll be able to accommodate sledge hockey, or any type of mobility-challenged activity on the ice,” said Laurin.
Those standards include making the ice nearly flush with the floor outside the rink, with a half-inch lip rather than the typical six-to-eight-inch step down onto the ice, she said.
The players’ boxes have been equipped with removable benches so sledge hockey players can easily slide in off the ice, she said. To make it even more accommodating, the boards along player-boxes are half Plexiglas, so those on the bench can see out onto the ice.
“I think the Timbits will love that feature too,” said Laurin.
In addition to the NHL-sized rink, a sheet of leisure ice is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for recreational skating, she said.
There are no boards and it’s surrounded by rubber matting to make the area skate-friendly, and has a fireplace feature built into one wall for those on the ice or watching skaters.
The leisure ice is free for anyone to access, she said.
“It’s a recreational piece of ice and that helps mitigate against some of the inclement weather from the outdoor ice, so when the Chinooks come through and the ice melts or it’s -38 (Celsius) with the wind chill you’ll be able to come skating any time, just recreation skating,” said Laurin.
The Town has not determined whether the leisure ice will be open year-round yet. It was built to be energy-efficient in the summer months, but the first two years of operation will give some clue as to demand, she said.
“While it is cost-efficient there is still a cost to running summer ice,” said Laurin. “If we have a demand for it then we will keep it open for the summer. We’re playing it by ear.”