In the American heartland, many counties have a well-loved football field where everybody comes together to cheer the home team — think “Friday Night Lights.” In Vermont, that popular spot is more likely to be an ice rink.
A ski resort may seem like a strange place for one of these clammy community gathering places. Most ice arenas are situated in towns, not several miles up a snowy access road. But between Swanton and Newport, 20 minutes from the Canadian border, there aren’t many towns to speak of. Just skaters. And, to them, the Ice Haus Arena at Jay Peak Resort doesn’t seem particularly out of the way.
Snow came early to Jay this year. The morning after last Friday’s Nor’easter, the mountain was a sodden mass striped with white trails, its summit veiled in mist. The lifts stood still. No one moved on the vast, muddy construction site where a 120-room hotel and state-of-the-art indoor water park will be when the resort’s $100 million expansion is finished in 2012.
On this Saturday morning, the action was inside the Ice Haus Arena, a low, green building situated on a rise above the plain of girders and earth movers.
On the 16,000 square feet of gleaming ice — standard rink size for the National Hockey League — a child pushed a milk crate in dogged circles, using it for support as she got used to her skate edges. Meanwhile, a handful of gangly older girls in bright hats and sweaters darted and whirled, practicing waltz jumps and basic spins.
They’d come for a public skating session. On gloomy weekends, similar events can draw hundreds of people — from septuagenarian pond-hockey veterans to toddlers — to Burlington’s Leddy Park Arena and South Burlington’s Cairns Arena.
At Jay Peak, six or seven skaters had the ice to themselves. Above them, in the foyer/café area with its hanging lamps and exposed ductwork, a couple of parents and grandparents watched from barstools at the curved counter, shielded from the cold by plate glass.
The tranquility was deceptive. Later that day the rink would host a noisy stick-and-puck session, a private curling club, and two face-offs of the Green Mountain Glades — a precollegiate hockey program for 16- to 20-year-olds — against the New England Huskies.
Right now, the Ice Haus, which opened last May, is giving this rural corner of the Northeast Kingdom something it never had: a rink where high school hockey teams can practice and aspiring Michelle Kwans can twirl.
But when the snow gets deep, the rink should take on a new life. Then its long daily blocks of public skating — free with a hotel stay — will entice the resort’s guests, suggested figure-skating director Krista Boulanger. “We’re hoping it’ll be something for skiers to do after skiing’s done.”
Arena manager Dennis Himes seconded that. “Our goal is, in the wintertime when the resort’s full, giving people something to do after hours,” he said. “Get done skiing, have dinner and go watch a figure-skating show. Or watch a hockey game.”
If the Ice Haus succeeds in serving the surrounding communities while helping the resort weather the recession, it will be another success for Jay Peak president Bill Stenger. Funded largely by foreign investors using the EB-5 visa program, his four-season expansion strategy has been many years, and regulatory battles, in the making.
The resort drew less than favorable attention last week when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a statement saying it had ordered Jay to restore wetlands compromised by construction of its new golf course. (The repairs have been completed.) Meanwhile, in the October issue of Vermont Business Magazine, Stenger touted Jay’s “very, very good summer” and noted that advance season-pass sales are up by 20 to 25 percent this year — partly because of an influx of Canadians eager to spend their strong dollar.
Will amenities such as the Ice Haus add value to Jay’s passes and vacation packages? Boulanger and Himes both pointed to a Labor Day ice show that drew about 300 spectators. They hope to have more at a second show in January. Boulanger, 23, a Lyndonville native who’s placed high in regional figure-skating competitions, is excited about the talent she’s booking, including a U.S. pairs team, a Russian show skater who performs with flaming batons and a nephew of Ukrainian gold-medal winner Viktor Petrenko.
There were no Petrenkos on the ice on Saturday, but there was plenty of enthusiasm. Gracie Lanphear, a 9-year-old from Montgomery with a funky blue hat, said she was at the Ice Haus “the first day it opened.” A skater since age 4, she used to go to the Green Mountain Arena in Morrisville. Now she and her sister skate here three times a week, she said, and she likes the “good music” at Friday night dance-party skates.
Stephanie Van Blunk of Eden, who was watching her daughter Morgan navigate the ice, said her family skis at Jay Peak. When she heard about the Ice Haus’ learn-to-skate program for homeschooled kids, she decided to try out the new facility.
Boulanger, who recently returned to the NEK after years of training in Canada and Connecticut, was hired part time to run that learn-to-skate program and two others — with a current total of 50 kids enrolled — along with a power-skating class and a figure-skating club. She plans to register the club with the U.S. Figure Skating Organization once it has enough members; USFSA clubs, such as the ones at Leddy and Cairns, can host official testing sessions and competitions.
The rink currently has five employees, said Himes, and sees 200 to 300 visitors per week who come from both sides of the border. Not for nothing does the Ice Haus have prominent bilingual signage, and its café serves both burgers and poutine.
But Himes said the eventual goal is to host a few hundred people per day. (The arena sits 750 spectators.) As majority owner of the Green Mountain Glades, Himes brought the rink his hockey connections. “Most rinks hold a lot of debt,” he pointed out, and adjust the fees they charge for ice time accordingly. Because “this is just another attraction to bring people in here to fit the amenities of the resort,” the Ice Haus isn’t under that degree of pressure to earn its keep. “We have the ability to mix things up, if you will,” Himes said.
One way the resort has already “mixed it up” is by investing in green features for the $6.5 million arena. The electric Zamboni saves 40,000 gallons of fuel per year, said Himes. The snow it shaves off the ice isn’t dumped in a pile to melt, but cycled through a “snow pit” and reused. Eventually, said Himes, it will help heat the new water park.
In the rink’s control room, five steel compressor cubes cycle to keep the temperature low. A dehumidification system prevents fog buildup. Hockey and figure skating have different ideal ice temperatures, and Himes can set them remotely — with his iPhone. When humidity rises too high, he gets a text message. The result, he said, is substantial savings in labor time.
Public skating was almost over. Out on the ice, Boulanger was showing some of her moves, gliding over the ice in a dramatic, arched-back ballerina pose combined with a spread eagle. Next she did a whip-quick combination spin: camel, sit spin, layback. Her pupils watched in awe.
In months to come, the Ice Haus should get rowdier. The boys’ and girls’ hockey teams from Newport’s North Country Union High School, which used to have their home ice in Stanstead, Que., are moving here. “Take out all the college facilities,” said Himes, “and this is probably the nicest rink any high school team will play in.”
Andrew Roy, who coaches the NCUHS boys’ ice hockey team, agreed, calling the Ice Haus “absolutely the nicest rink we could possibly play on.” Roy said his team had a good relationship with 56-year-old Stanstead College Arena — which is itself due to be replaced soon by a fancier new facility. But “it makes sense to have home competitions at a location that’s in our district,” Roy pointed out. When the NCUHS Falcons played in Stanstead, their opponents often needed to do “a lot of extra coordination” to cross the border.
The Ice Haus will always have features that set it apart from municipal rinks, from its public-skating entry fees ($6 per adult to Burlington’s $4) to the black concrete countertops in its immaculate restrooms. In one corner, a wall-length window offers skaters a mountain view, reminding the resort’s guests what really brought them here: the rugged outdoor terrain.
For locals, though, it’s one helluva place to learn T-stops and backward swizzles. Or to cheer the home team.