ANGOLA – It used to be that a good youth hockey player had to leave the area, or have parents willing and able to commute to Michigan, to have a decent shot at making it to the college or even professional ranks. Even though the Komets have been playing pro hockey in Fort Wayne since 1952, making this a hockey-hungry area, a lack of ice and infrastructure wasn't necessarily conducive to growing talent in the region.
That's changing and it's what I thought about, almost as much as what a cool experience college game nights will be like, when I got a behind-the-scenes look Thursday at the $8.5-million Thunder Ice Arena on Trine University's campus that is on the cusp of opening.
The 46,200-square-foot arena, which seats around 700 fans and has capacity of about 1,500, is intimate. But more than anything, it's beautiful. There are state-of-the-art locker rooms for the college teams – including NCAA Division III men's and women's teams and a team that will play in the American Collegiate Hockey Association's Division II – and facilities you would want to accommodate youth and recreational players.
What blows one away the most is the varsity locker room that would probably make the Komets jealous – the lockers encircle TV monitors coaches can use to break down the previous period – along with a hospitality suite that overlooks the ice and has furniture made from recycled hockey sticks.
“The arena has been a big selling point (to recruits),” says Tom Hofman, who will coach the women's team. “Now that it's opening, it'll be even more of a selling point. The classes coming in this year got to see all the progression, from a dirt lot to a steel frame, and most of them haven't been back to see the finished product and that will be very exciting for them.”
The arena, which opens to the public Sept. 5, will be dedicated Sept. 14 and the first game will feature the Detroit Red Wings' alumni team against local players Sept. 17. Major contributors to Thunder Ice Arena include The James Foundation, Dekko Foundation, Steel Dynamics, Sweetwater Sound, Parkview Health and Larry and Judy Reiners.
Trine's senior vice president, Michael R. Bock, says the arena should be viewed as a partner, not a competitor, of Fort Wayne's Sport ONE/Parkview Icehouse, which has three sheets of ice and has been the venue for youth hockey since McMillen Arena closed.
“The whole idea is that we want to grow the game of hockey and that's good for everyone,” Bock says. “We have no plans of competing.”
When one thinks about the demand for ice throughout northeast Indiana and southwest Michigan for learn-to-skate programs, hockey leagues, figure skating, tournaments and just open skates, it's clear just how important this facility could become. There are 300 skates that can be rented, a pro shop in construction, a concession stand and a youth hockey program that already has about 70 kids signed up.
“What we've learned is that there were large numbers of people who were commuting to wherever they could find ice,” Bock says. “We're excited about this being available at home now.”
One thing that's particularly thoughtful is a partitioning system within the dasher boards that will make it easy for disabled athletes to get on and off the ice easily. Considering sled hockey is catching on, the usefulness for Turnstone and others is obvious.
It's no longer just about the Komets in this region, when it comes to high-level hockey; Trine and Indiana Tech are fully embracing the sport.
“It's an exciting time and I can't wait. The guys are showing up today, the international students, and the rest will come in this weekend,” Trine men's coach Alex Todd says. “Every kid that comes in, the first thing they want to see is the building, whether they are hockey players or not. ... We did a lot of work this year to spread the word (to recruits) but we didn't yet have the facility. This year, I think it's going to be even better.”
It's staggering to consider the change in Trine's athletic facilities over the last 10 years. Fred Zollner Athletic Stadium, finished in 2010, is terrific. And the $16-million MTI Center, which will house the basketball teams, a fitness center and bowling alley, is nearing completion on a campus bustling with construction.
One can't help but wonder what college stars we'll see at these places, but also what youngsters will get their starts there, too.
Justin A. Cohn is a senior writer for The Journal Gazette and has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1997. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org phone, 461-8429; or fax 461-8648.