Hockey time

It was a tempting prospect, but just not meant to be; at least for now.

The Keene ICE arena likely won't be playing host to a junior league hockey team or two after all.

The Eastern Hockey League franchise and Keene ICE had negotiated for months, and seemed to have nearly everything nailed down for the Keene Eclipse to debut in September. The Eclipse had been advertising Keene as its home and noted on its website that: “Our players are committed to being visible, positive role models in the community, and we expect them to become vocal cheerleaders for the younger athletes in Keene.”

The plan was to use Keene ICE for its two programs, an Eastern Hockey League team and an Eastern Hockey League premier team.

“As part of our agreement with the EHL, we had to tell them where we were trying to locate,” Eclipse Club President Patrick Cannon said. “We couldn’t purchase a team and then just say we’ll figure out a spot for it later. We had to tell them our intentions. We had been talking with folks at the city and the rink for a year now, so our intentions were to be in Keene.”

However, despite the franchise's desire and enthusiasm from the city, which owns the site, there was never a deal in place for the Eclipse to be in Keene. There was enough traction built up to get the plan in front of the Keene community this week, via a Zoom call.

That call didn’t go as hoped — there was a lack of buy-in from the area hockey community that uses the rink.

At a Zoom meeting hosted by the Keene ICE board Wednesday — the first in five years that was opened to the public — concerns were raised over what, exactly, the team would bring to the table, vs. what it would be getting. That also led to a broader discussion of the rink's attributes and issues facing the organization.

The financial state of the rink was a big topic of discussion because of the debt the rink still must pay down annually, a $160,000 court settlement with architect Daniel Scully, and the effects of the COVID-19 situation.

The Eclipse’s plan was not going to interfere with the current situation at the rink in terms of ice time, as they were planning to practice during the day, when the ice is not being utilized. They were planning on building locker room space in an unused area of the rink for their two teams to use.

The Eclipse is a pay-to-play organization, consisting of high-school-age players trying to advance to the collegiate level, and using the EHL as an outlet to get looked at by colleges or move forward onto a more select junior hockey league such as the United States Hockey League, widely regarded as the top junior hockey league in the country. The players pay up to $10,000 to participate.

But those who participated in the discussions between the board and Eclipse say the team wanted to pay just $170 an hour for ice time.

“I think financially is one of the reasons they looked at the Eclipse, but the reality was they were going to give us almost nothing,” former board member Craig Lindsay said. “They were going to buy ice on the cheap and it was a really bad deal for the community. So, that’s why people got up in arms.”

Lindsay said for that little in revenue, it wasn't worth tying up the ice, and those practices would be at the expense of time now set aside for public skating.

With the deal off the table, the board is looking to refocus on its core users. The rink was built to be a community resource first and foremost.

For the past five years, the Keene Community Ice Arena has played host to numerous organizations, including the Keene High School and Monadnock Regional hockey teams, Keene State College club hockey teams, a local men’s league and Keene youth hockey. Its revenue comes mainly from those groups paying for ice time. The COVID shutdown has taken a toll, as it has on many other ventures.

Because of the pandemic, the payments for the rink have been deferred through the end of September. Eventually though, the operating agreement will have to be re-upped. The loan for the rink has at least 20 years remaining on it, according to new board President Rafal Podniesinski.

He, the other board members and representatives from Rink Services Group, which manages the rink and employees, joined the Zoom call Wednesday to answer questions and hear concerns from the public.

Clearly, not everyone is  on board with the direction the rink's management has taken, nor as excited as they were when it opened in 2015.

Since that opening, the energy has disappeared around the rink and it’s become harder to get more people involved in the advancement of the rink, according to the ice users attending the meeting, and the board is seeking more community involvement to continue the fostering of the rink.

So with no deal in place, there is no junior hockey team coming to Keene. While true, Cannon still views Keene as a realistic option for the organization to call home.

Time will tell whether or not that happens, as avenues still remain open in Keene for the time being.

Updated Thursday evening with more information.