Along the shores of Lake Erie, there’s no hiding from winter. Best to embrace it, residents say, and revel in their snowy heritage.
It was that zest for winter’s joys, along with several large trucks, that carried a rink and chiller 10 miles east from Ralph Wilson Stadium to East Aurora, N.Y., following the NHL’s inaugural Winter Classic in 2008.
The non-profit Aurora Ice Association rebuilt the rink as an open-air village centerpiece, buoyed by Winter Classic enthusiasm, boundless energy and vision for hockey at the heart of East Aurora.
“I was there for the first one and it was an awesome, awesome day,” said Ryan McPherson, a volunteer AIA coach and board member. “That spirit was what built the rink. We wanted it in the middle of our town, a place where everyone in the community could come together and celebrate winter.”
The AIA raised $1.4 million in private funds to bankroll the effort, building a roof over the rink in 2009 and a concrete slab under it in 2012. Next is a 6,200-square foot adjacent “lodge” with restrooms, a heated overlook, banquet areas and changing rooms. But true to the Winter Classic ethos, there are no plans to fully enclose what is now known as The Healthy Zone Rink.
“It’s how this game started,” said McPherson, 41. “It’s about winter and being a part of it. That’s who we are, and we take pride in it.”
The lodge concept wasn’t part of the original plan, but it became something of a necessity as AIA youth hockey blossomed. A true community-based program, local parents and children gravitated steadily toward AIA youth teams, swelling participation from 50 kids in the first season (2011-12) to more than 120 this season. And while the increased usage may have stoked demand for a few modest off-ice creature comforts, on the ice, the AIA is staying true to its roots.
“Our vision is to build a hockey program for our own kids that personifies the values of our community, not only the resilience of being outdoors, but also with a specific focus on sportsmanship, respect, integrity and a love of hockey,” said McPherson. “We want to win and we want our kids to be the best they can be, but we’re also about building the kid into great person.”
As the AIA set its foundation for making the vision a reality, it considered different options for youth hockey programming before ultimately choosing USA Hockey and its American Development Model.
“Initially, I was skeptical of the approach, but quickly converted after learning the logic behind the ADM,” said McPherson. “The biggest challenge is those folks who fall back into the model from their own youth hockey experience, instead of evolving and using science and data to adapt.”
In recent weeks, other sport governing bodies in the United States, as well as the NCAA and U.S. Olympic Committee, have asked to utilize the American Development Model moniker and adapt USA Hockey’s efforts to their own competition environments. In addition, a recent study by North Carolina State University’s Michael Kanters, Ph.D., reinforced some of the values of the ADM. His research concluded:
According to Kanters’ research brief, “It seems apparent that USA Hockey has developed a framework to facilitate high levels of physical activity for more children without compromising attention to skill development and instruction.”
It’s also a framework for fun, as evidenced by the smiles in East Aurora.
“I give USA Hockey an enormous amount of credit for developing the ADM,” said McPherson. “The kids are building their skills without even realizing it – they’re just having fun – and they’re developing a love where they keep wanting to come back.”
Implementing station-based practices, with multiple teams on the ice, along with cross-ice games, has also helped the AIA make hockey more affordable for families.
“It enables us to keep our price below other clubs and/or provide more ice time,” said McPherson.
The AIA has been creative with fundraising as well. Last month, it once again hosted a 24-Hour Intense Milk Hockey-Thon, raising more than $26,000. Thirty brave adult players participated, along with volunteer referee Martin Biron, a former NHL goaltender now living in East Aurora who played for Buffalo and Philadelphia, as well as the New York Islanders and Rangers.
In all, 343 goals were scored and the AIA moved several thousand dollars closer to its financial goal.
“People will tell you that there are two ways to finance a rink,” said McPherson. “You either build a municipal rink with tax dollars or you build a for-profit rink. Well, we didn’t do either. We created a non-profit to move it forward, and so far, we’ve stayed in the black. But it’s taken a great team of volunteers, coaches and parents. It’s a great partnership.”