Every time John Veilleux pondered the potential for growth in his youth hockey organization, he faced this cold reality: Ice was the missing ingredient.
A scarcity of rinks means youngsters have had to trek to 6 a.m. practices, or return home well after their bedtimes to accommodate 9:30 p.m. sessions. That may be fine for some families, but how many people have these haphazard schedules scared away from the sport?
“(Parents) don’t want their kid to be out there those crazy hours,” said Veilleux, president of the Casco Bay Hockey Association, Maine’s largest with some 880 players ages 4-18. “Your entry-level players are playing at the worst times. The goal is to have more sensible ice times while trying to keep affordable hockey viable in Maine.”
To that end, the organization announced this week that it will construct a $2 million rink at Village Park in Falmouth. Casco Bay Arena is set to open in December, located on the site of a 50-year-old outdoor rink that had fallen into disrepair.
It will join with the Harold Alfond Forum on the University of New England campus in Biddeford and Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn as facilities that have sprung up in the past two years to handle the burgeoning number of young skaters in southern and central Maine.
Veilleux has been on the board of the non-profit CBHA for nine years. During that time he has seen increased competition for ice time from a growing number of middle school and high school teams, both boys and girls. A large figure-skating community in Maine also covets ice time.
Adding to the conundrum: Veilleux said families aren’t as keen on early morning or late-night practices as they may have been when he was growing up in Winslow. He added the CBHA hasn’t been able advertise its programs because it had reached the maximum amount of ice time for its 40 or so teams.
“Sometimes we forget that the hockey player and their family are essentially a consumer,” said D.J. Whitten, manager of the Harold Alfond Forum since it opened in 2012 and formerly the longtime manager of the Portland Ice Arena.
“I think the days of a rink going from 5:30 a.m. to midnight are gone. They are essentially trying to get a family to choose hockey over soccer as 5-year-olds. If you’re practicing at 9:30 at night, that’s a hard sell.”
“We used to have adult league games starting at 11:50 p.m. on Fridays. You’ll never see those days again. It doesn’t mean there’s less people playing, it just means that they’re getting smarter.”
Casco Bay Arena will be a combination of rustic rinks of yesteryear and state-of-the-art technology. There will be four locker rooms, two bathrooms and a heated viewing area at the entrance. But the rink itself will be unheated, with a roof overhead and the remaining three sides shielded by a combination of metal walls behind the team benches and stands, and wind mesh covering the rest. The plan is to use solar energy for heating and to be “energy-neutral” within the first six years, Veilleux said. The group has received a $50,000 Energy Maine grant for those efforts.
Veilleux said $120,000 has been raised for the project through donations. Fundraising will be ongoing. For information, donors can visit cascobayarena.com.
The CBHA will be the primary tenant during hockey season, from mid-October to mid-March. But Veilleux said four school systems – Falmouth, Greely, Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth – have also bought five-day blocks for practices for their high school varsity, junior varsity and middle school teams of both genders.
The CBHA also will continue to use the ice rinks at North Yarmouth Academy, Family Ice in Falmouth and Portland Ice Arena, Veilleux said.
In the offseason, the new space can be used for box lacrosse, indoor soccer and other sports.
“This is really good for not only Casco Bay’s players but for the development of hockey,” said Veilleux, who anticipates 10 percent growth in his organization in the next five years. “This has been a long time coming.”