Renovations modernize Vermont ice skating rink

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION, Vt. (AP) — You had to be rugged to play at the Hartford Board of Recreation’s rink during its first decade of existence. Built in 1975, the structure was originally no more than a pitched metal roof with chain-link fencing along the sides and above the dasher boards and a cinder-block nook for the ice resurfacer.

That machine was not a Zamboni. Nor an Olympia. It was a squarish device roughly the size of an industrial refrigerator and towed behind a tractor. Because the rink was open to the horizontal elements, the wind whipped across Tafts Flat and caused spectators to dress as if exploring the Arctic.

“With a blowing storm, you could get snow on the ice,” said Hartford High athletic director Jeff Moreno of a facility adjacent to the school. “It was brutally cold.”

Youth hockey games were sometimes woven together. Two teams of tykes would play a period, then retreat to the locker rooms to have their semi-frozen feet placed on a hot water bottle. Painful tears would flow while two other squads conducted their own period, and then the groups would switch places.

Five miles northeast, Hanover’s youth hockey organization operated out of decrepit Davis Rink. Dartmouth College’s low-slung brick facility opened in 1929, and its broad, wooden stands were splintered from decades of shoes and skate blades. When it was torn down in 1985, the community rallied to raise money for the construction of West Lebanon’s James W. Campion III Rink, which opened nearly three years later.

“Campion was the Taj Mahal,” Moreno recalled.

Thirty-two years later, the skate’s on the other foot. Hartford’s arena, since renamed for Wendell A. Barwood, grows nicer by the year, while Campion slumps with age. The facilities’ operators estimate that each is visited 90,000 times per year, repeat users included.

Campion’s construction was a significant step up from Davis, and the former building’s under-ice piping lives on in one of the few sand-floored rinks remaining in New England.

“We know the issues, and it’s very important that we get a renovation done,” said Hanover Improvement Society president Jeff Graham, who has recently begun fundraising and planning efforts to overhaul the building at a cost, he estimates, that could go as high as $4 million. “It’s time.”

That moment arrived for Barwood around 2010, by which time the arena’s perpetual twilight grew more noticeable. It wasn’t that the building’s illumination had gotten worse, but that rink after rink around New England had installed brighter lights.

The transparent plastic panels around Barwood’s rink were so scratched and scuffed that spectators moved their heads around the blemishes to see the action in certain spots. The dasher boards comprising the wall’s lower half featured gaps large enough to trap a stick blade, and at least one panel featured a large crack. The “glass” and boards also didn’t have enough give for current safety levels when players crashed into them.

The arena’s west wall had gaps allowing outside sunlight to be spotted during the day. The restrooms and locker rooms were small and smelly, with one locker room nicknamed “The Closet” by youth hockey players because it could fit only about eight of them. There was no lobby.

The Zamboni was more than 20 years old and occasionally broke down, wiping out scheduled activities. Of a similar age was the floor-embedded, brine-based cooling system, which had corroded its metal piping and was constantly at risk for leaks and melted ice.

The 2015-16 skating season ended a week early when the refrigeration system, which then-recreation director Tad Nunez described as working at less than 50% capacity, couldn’t cope with warm weather.

Taxpayers rejected a $2.8 million bond to upgrade Barwood in 2005, and the situation became dire enough that the Hartford School District, which owns the land beneath the town-owned building, considered not extending a lease on the facility. Voters successfully petitioned officials to accept a 25-year lease and directed the Selectboard to spend $50,000 on maintenance.

In 2013, Hartford voters approved an $8.9 million joint project bond that included $2.5 million for Barwood repairs and expansion, but poor cost estimates scrapped plans for a new $700,000 eastern wing. In 2017, the facility received a new heated lobby, bathrooms, locker rooms, roof and lighting, but a $405,000 shortfall remained.

Donations and funds cobbled together from the town’s operating budget and rainy-day fund closed that gap. Another $80,000 shortcoming later emerged, when it was discovered the arena’s access road was lacking.

Town and school district officials eventually found funding for that as well, but Barwood has an insufficient parking situation that current Parks and Recreation director Scott Hausler described last week as “miserable.” Hausler said he and Moreno are in the early planning stages of at least a partial solution.

The town spent tens of thousands of dollars on blown compressors and other aging components in Barwood’s refrigeration system and lost revenue when the rink unexpectedly shut down. The Selectboard voted in 2018 to spend what became $810,000 for a new piping system, boards and glass and a new, leased Zamboni. All debuted for the current skating season.

Barwood, home rink for the 170-skater Upper Valley Storm youth hockey organization, gleams and those who haven’t visited in a few years are taken aback upon entering. This summer should bring the installation of seven rows of aluminum bleachers to replace the current wooden ones. A center-hung, four-sided scoreboard is also expected to be installed.

Said Hanover’s Graham: “I can’t believe what they’ve done with the place.”

Graham hopes reaction will be similar when Campion’s renovation is complete, but that plan is in its infancy and, unlike its predecessor, does not have the goal of adding a second rink to the facility.

Although the Lebanon Zoning Board voted a year ago to give the nonprofit Campion Sports and Recreation Project two more years to reach its fundraising goals, group leader John Souther declined to tell the board how much money had been raised, and that effort has been halted, Graham said.

The arena’s main problem is its four small locker rooms. When the 20-member Lebanon High boys hockey team dresses in the largest of them, room 4, its five freshmen are squeezed into a back hallway.

Rooms 1 and 2 share a bathroom, as do rooms 3 and 4. That’s problematic when adjacent boys and girls teams are changing and showering, and also if a game becomes heated and competitors cross paths in that shared space after the final horn.

“Kids are bigger and hockey bags are bigger than they were 30 years ago,” said Graham, who skated for Hanover High when it called Davis Rink home. His son, Casey, is a burly member of the current Marauders.

Lebanon High junior Andrew Duany called Campion’s locker rooms “claustrophobic” and lamented the “sweaty, dense” air created by such close quarters. He said his team recently enjoyed playing two tournament games at Barwood.

“Cold ice makes the game faster and smoother, and Hartford has some great ice,” Duany said after a Friday practice at Campion. “It keeps the puck and players moving quickly; it’s more exciting. Here, every now and then, the ice doesn’t freeze as well, and there are puddles everywhere and the puck gets stuck in them.”

Invitations have only recently gone out to a group of about 20 people as potential drivers behind the Campion renovation. The hope is to have wide representation from its current-use groups and begin fundraising in the spring.

“There are a lot of people to whom Campion Rink is dear to their heart, and they’ve gone out in the world and made a lot of money,” Graham said. “Hopefully, when this thing kicks off, they remember the fun they had and help us out.”

Graham said the 250-skater Hanover Youth Hockey Association has drawn members from dozens of towns in recent years and that 30 different groups use Campion per year. He would like to see the renovation finished within four years.

A $100,000 upgrade of Campion’s Zamboni space occurred last summer, and lighting improvements and upgraded internet service took place in recent years, Graham said. The bleachers are serviceable but are also castoffs from a distant renovation to Dartmouth’s Alumni Gym. The lobby’s worn benches date to the rink’s 1987 opening.

Parking, while plentiful, is on a potholed, dirt surface which, if paved, could extend the life of many a hockey mom’s minivan. Dick Dodds, Campion’s longtime manager and Hanover High’s boys hockey coach, hopes a renovated front office will look out into the lobby and that a room can be added on for birthday parties and other functions.

Campion lacks storage space, its boards and glass are roughly a dozen years old and one of the building’s two compressors dates back to Davis and requires parts that are now made only in India, Dodds said. The sand floor means making new ice takes roughly a week, whereas it can be created in fewer than two days on a concrete slab.

“I’m proud of how hard we’ve worked here, and (Campion) holds a lot of memories,” Dodds said. “But what do we want this rink to look like for the next 30 years? Let’s get there as fast as we can.”