Over Labor Day weekend the North American Hockey Academy, or NAHA, held a tournament that brought junior girls hockey players to rinks around northern Vermont – including the school's home rink, Stowe Arena.
But the event was bittersweet in Stowe: It came just weeks after NAHA founder Bill Driscoll told the town he's selling the school, and the program is moving to Massachusetts.
Ice rinks are expensive to run, especially in the summer. So when the town of Stowe learned a major user of the Stowe Arena was leaving town, one of the first questions raised was whether they should even have ice next summer.
Since Stowe opened its indoor arena in 2013, NAHA has accounted for a significant portion of the arena’s income. This past year, Stowe counted on NAHA for a quarter of its ice rental revenue.
Stowe Town Manager Charles Safford said there are some decisions to be made — among them, whether it makes sense to lay down ice next summer.
"I think the goal is to try to make a decision before the end of November, so that we know what to book and we also know how to budget — you know,interms of what best to do," Safford said. "But no decisions in life are forever, right? You gotta be willing to evolve and change with the times."
The town recreation commission has appointed a task force that's spending this month studying the options. The task force includes members of the recreation commission as well skaters from the community. Chairperson Lynn Altadonna said the task force is leaning toward a recommendation of keeping ice down next summer.
Meanwhile, the rink is starting an adult Late Night Hockey League to sell ice time when the rink has traditionally been closed.
Still, come summer, the ice is more expensive to maintain; summer ice is underutilized compared to the winter months. But some local skaters say it's rife with opportunity.
"Obviously losing NAHA is a loss. We hate to see their departure. But, you know, our eyes are in the front of our head, not the back, so we gotta look forward now and see where we go from here." — Stowe Town Manager Charles Safford
Ian Smith is a former professional hockey player who now runs hockey clinics and camps out of the ice rinks in Stowe and Waterbury. He said there's a market for summer hockey camps, especially in a destination town like Stowe.
"There's no time during the season to have a camp – a weeklong day camp where kids can come and from nine to three, all week, to learn power skating," Smith said. "Like, when can we do that during the hockey season?"
Smith isn't the only person attracting skaters onto the ice in the offseason: NAHA alumna and Olympic gold medalist Amanda Pelkey also ran two weeklong camps for girls out of Stowe Arena this summer. Smith said shutting down summer ice in response to a winter academy leaving doesn't make sense.
"NAHA leaving is a winter space. Summer hockey is another space," Smith said. "And from what I understand, we've got Amanda Pelkey who's trying to build her brand – an Olympic athlete who’s trying to build her brand. Like, I'm an ex-professional athlete trying to build my brand. And then you're talking about closing?"
Pelkey said she's counting on coming back next summer, and possibly adding a third camp.
"I hope that they don't shut it down because that's where, you know, I plan to continue to do my camps because they went so well," Pelkey said. "And I'm hoping to potentially add another one as well."
Smith suggested the town hire someone to market the arena and sell ice time, rather than limiting it. Prime-time ice rental brings in $205 an hour, and even off-peak ice costs $155 an hour.
"To fill it, you need [advertising]. I don't know any business that can't get ahead without advertising," Smith said. "So who's going out and reaching a junior hockey team to fill this space that NAHA left?"
Looking ahead to the next opportunity is also on town manager Safford's mind.
"Obviously losing NAHA is a loss. We hate to see their departure," Safford said. "But, you know, our eyes are in the front of our head, not the back, so we gotta look forward now and see where we go from here."
But there's a big hole to fill if the town decides to make up for lost revenue without cutting expenses. Stowe had budgeted more than $70,000 in NAHA ice rentals this year, accounting for 30% of the rink's total projected ice revenue.
Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.