WORCESTER — The ice is cordoned off into six stations, each filled with young skaters from the Junior Crusaders hockey club, taking part in drills. Every seven minutes, one of the coaches blows his whistle, and the kids race over to the next station, making sure not to waste any of the 50 minutes of ice time they get for practice.
The ice is crowded, which makes sense, given that three teams are out there sharing the space. It’s a measure some local hockey clubs have resorted to given the limited ice available in the area.
But that will soon change. Next August, a long-awaited 100,000-square-foot hockey facility with two full-size ice rinks is scheduled to open in the Canal District at the site of the former PresMet Corp. property on Winter and Harding streets.
The new facility is expected to make life a lot easier for everyone involved in the local youth hockey community. Coaches and organizers say the rink will alleviate many of their struggles finding ice time, freeing up space while allowing more consistent schedules. It will also be a boon to parents and players, who won’t have to travel as far for practice and who will now have more options for programs.
“We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of positive feedback,” said Robert Liddy, president of the Worcester Junior Sharks, another local youth hockey club whose website includes a countdown to the opening of the facility on Aug. 15. “Once it’s open, I think they’re just going to realize how much easier life will be for everyone.”
The $18 million facility, tentatively known as the Worcester Sports Center, is expected to become the primary base of operations for the Crusaders and the Sharks, and will also be used by Worcester Academy, Worcester State University and Becker College.
The project is owned by Worcester Sports Center LLC, whose managing partner is Cliff Rucker, a North Shore businessman who helped provide the financing necessary to jump-start the project back in March.
Mr. Rucker is also launching the new Worcester Railers Hockey Club, an expansion ECHL club replacing the relocated Worcester Sharks. The Railers will play at the DCU Center when they debut in 2017, and Mr. Rucker said he invested in the new facility to help build the local hockey community, saying that a thriving youth hockey scene would be critical to the club’s success.
“I got involved because I recognized the importance of having a community ice facility in support of the minor-league professional hockey team,” Mr. Rucker said. “There is a symbiotic relationship; it’s all part of an ecosystem for the hockey community.”
The facility will include two full-size ice rinks each with mezzanine seating, a state-of-the-art athletic training and conditioning center, locker rooms, meeting spaces, a pro shop and concession stands. It will also feature approximately 38,000 square feet of retail space, which will house a restaurant, a physical therapy practice, a gym, a merchandise store and a café.
Mr. Rucker said the new facility, which will be officially named next month, will rent ice for between $225 and $275 an hour, depending on the time of day. He said they also expect to donate time to worthy causes, and his hope is that it will provide new opportunities for local kids to be exposed to hockey.
Youth hockey leaders are already predicting it will, as the central location will allow players, parents and coaches more opportunities to play closer to home.
Right now, both the Crusaders and Sharks lease time at multiple rinks across the area. The Sharks are particularly spread out, using four rinks in Worcester and Auburn and the New England Sports Center and Navin Arena, both in Marlboro. In addition, they also use Cushing Academy in Ashburnham and the Wallace Civic Center in Fitchburg.
Some of those rinks are anywhere from a 20- to-45-minute drive from downtown Worcester, and Mr. Liddy said they even had to drop a rink in Gardner because of parent complaints.
“The distance, on Friday nights, it was such a hardship that most of our parents couldn’t show up for practices,” Mr. Liddy said.
For the Crusaders, who generally stay within Worcester and Auburn, the biggest benefit will be the ability to expand its offerings. The Crusaders have 650 to 700 players ranging in age from youth to high school, and Crusaders co-president Earl Corey said he would like to add a house league, along with more age groups to the club’s programs.
“This would allow us to do tournaments, too,” Mr. Corey said. “Right now we just do one, the Lakers Tournament, so having the two rinks there, it will be nice to run a couple more tournaments during the year.”
With shorter drives, additional programs and more consistent scheduling, the new facility will make life a lot easier for the players and their parents as well. Particularly in the winter months when high school and college teams routinely pre-empt their ice time, causing practices to be rescheduled or relocated on fairly short notice.
“You have to keep on top of it,” said Jennifer Baker of Rutland, whose 8-year-old son, Max, plays on the Crusaders Mites 1 team. “The Crusaders have apps that help remind you, there are reminders that are set â€¦ but when the high school schedule comes along, the changes in the schedule, it’s hard to manage.”
Hockey families are used to the fast-paced lifestyle, but for those who are new to hockey or on the fence about giving it a try, having more teams serving more age groups at more convenient times and places will surely help attract more players and help grow the game locally.
“It’s a huge commitment, but it’s worth it,” said Ms. Baker. “Because when you see these kids out there on the ice having a good time, it’s amazing what they can do.”
By Mac Cerullo | Special to the Telegram & Gazette