The Temple is Melting

If Minnesota hockey were a religion (and many, of course, would contend it is), Steve Mars would be a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher whose sermons carry an apocalyptic message: Something must be done to save the faith, because the temple is melting.

Warm winters of late have cut the outdoor-skating season nearly in half, and as outdoor ice goes, Mars says, so goes the status of our state as a puck mecca.

“For years our municipal parks were to hockey what Chicago’s are to inner-city basketball,” says Mars, a red-headed, boy-faced forty-nine-year-old who was a star winger on the Duluth East and Hamilton College hockey teams. “Imagine Michael Jordan without playground basketball. We’re losing our playground hockey,” Mars says. “All of those kids who just want to go out with their skates and stick now have almost no opportunity.”

Mars recently came up on the losing side of a contentious battle with the Eden Prairie Hockey Association over the use of $3.4 million raised to build an indoor arena (the third for this southwest suburb). He proposed instead spending the money to install up to six refrigerated outdoor rinks in city parks. Among other benefits, he says, that would have opened the sport to hundreds of kids who cannot afford the $1,400 to $1,900 to join a team and purchase equipment.
The cost of playing hockey has been rising in direct correlation with rising temperatures; as free outdoor ice disappears, teams are forced to shell out the $150 to $200 it takes to rent an hour of indoor ice. Multiply that by twenty or so—the number of practices each team once counted on conducting outdoors—and the outlays grow prohibitive.

“Minnesota is the state of hockey and we’re telling eighty percent of the kids they aren’t allowed in the club,” Mars says.

Like many religions, Minnesota hockey is political. According to Eden Prairie hockey parents who insisted on remaining anonymous, the clash between the indoor vs. outdoor ice advocates was often “nasty” and led to several of the children of those involved being cut from teams they deserved to make. Many individuals contacted for this article on both sides of the issue refused to comment, saying only that they wanted to put the ugliness behind them. Jerry Fagerhaug, the Eden Prairie Hockey Association president who backed the indoor arena, did not return multiple phone calls.

The issues in Eden Prairie are by no means limited to that community. According to Paul Douglas, the WCCO Television weather guru, Minnesotans have no choice but to “adapt to this new, Chicago-like climate.” Douglas says there will still be ice in Minnesota, but it won’t be nearly as reliable as it was a few decades ago. “Skating by mid-November was the norm for much of the twentieth century, but that date is being pushed back into mid- or late December. The skating season will, on average, be shorter by as many as ten to thirty days per winter than it was during the 1970s and early 1980s.”

That means fewer kids may experience what the late Herb Brooks called “the joy of going to the local park rink and playing pick-up games.” Brooks, who coached the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team to Olympic gold at Lake Placid, proposed the way forward for Minnesota Hockey shortly before his death. The state doesn’t need any more “million-dollar Taj Mahals,” Brooks said in the January 2003 issue of Let’s Play Hockey. “Why do we have all these arenas around town? To give kids the chance to play, right? But they’re expensive! What if we could find a more cost-effective way to get more ice and allow more kids to play? We need to supplement the indoor arenas—artificial outdoor ice is the missing link.”

“The people who advocate for more indoor ice tend to be people who never experienced the joy of outdoor ice,” Mars says. “They also feel that refrigerated outdoor ice is unreliable. But all they have to do is drive over to the Roseville Oval to see that’s not true.”

The John Rose Minnesota Oval, the largest refrigerated ice surface in the world, offers four outdoor rinks. The enormous facility is open from the first week in November until the first week in March and remains operational at temperatures up to fifty degrees. Since its establishment in 1993 the skating center has rarely been forced to cancel a session because of weather.

Steve Mars, who failed in his campaign to convince the Eden Prairie Hockey Association that outdoor refrigerated ice is the only way to preserve the sport in the era of global warming, says he’s glad the conflict has, for the moment, been resolved. But he laments the missed opportunity. “This was our chance to bring hockey back to any child who wanted to play. That’s what makes me lose sleep and lose friends over this. I mean, jeez, come on guys.”