It was a day full of good news.
Two weeks ago, the city announced it was partnering with the province and the East End Community Club on a $9-million upgrade to an existing two-sheet arena, adding a third sheet of ice together with improvements to the dressing rooms. The same day, the city and province announced a deal with Garden City Community Centre for a new, $17-million two-sheet arena and recreation complex.
Once these new projects open in fall 2014, the city will decommission three aging rinks -- Vimy, Old Exhibition and Roland Michener. There's great sense in this plan. Old rinks are expensive to maintain, have poor sight-lines and tiny dressing rooms. New arenas mean better amenities and lower overall operating costs. With skin in the game, club-controlled rinks tend to be more financially self-sufficient.
However, there is more to the out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new strategy. The city will continue to own the new rinks, but by asking clubs to run them, it is fundamentally altering the way the facilities function. In particular, it will change the way ice is allocated.
Club-operated rinks serve their own catchment areas first. City-operated rinks are generally used by individuals and groups from across the city. As the number of city-operated rinks shrinks, so too do opportunities for practice ice for teams hosted by associations or clubs that do not have their own rinks.
Winnipeg is not, as some may think, poorly served in terms of the number of arenas. In fact, when you add up all the rinks -- city owned and operated, community club-controlled sheets and private facilities -- we have among the highest number of rinks per capita. Even so, ask anyone with kids in hockey or ringette, and they'll tell you practice ice is hard to come by. The problem here is ice allocation.
The city provides hockey area associations a half hour of prime-time weekday and weekend ice per team hosted. The city also provides ice for other sports, and sets aside time for skating lessons. For hockey, that 30-minute slot guarantees a single game per week, per team. That's it. If you want practice ice, you have to go out onto the open market and try to find random ice.
However, it's different for teams hosted by community clubs that operate rinks. Those clubs do not get the city game allocation, but instead must provide the same half hour for each team it hosts. However, those community clubs are also entitled to offer practice ice to their teams on a priority basis.
That means a team hosted by the Fort Garry Minor Hockey Association, which does not have a community club-operated rink within its boundaries, has to scramble to find practice ice, while South Winnipeg or Assiniboine Park, which both have club rinks in their catchment areas, get prime practice ice for their teams.
It's not hard to understand why the community clubs take care of their own teams first -- the club puts in all the volunteer work, raises money to improve facilities and otherwise assumes the risk as operator. No, the real problem here is that the city has effectively lost control over contracts at the rinks it operates.
The city cannot, for example, guarantee a hockey association with no access to club-operated ice will get priority for contracts at city-operated arenas within its boundaries. Anyone involved in minor hockey or another youth ice sport, from any part of Winnipeg, can lock down prime time ice at any city-controlled rink even though it would make sense to make that ice available first to groups without access to a community club rink. The current system is set up to create some absolutely absurd scenarios.
Consider when the MTS Iceplex came on line three years ago, large blocks of ice time were provided to area associations in the west part of the city. However, the city did not ask those groups that received additional Iceplex ice to share or re-allocate contracts they held at city or club-operated rinks. As a result, even with four new sheets of ice, it's just as difficult, if not more so, to get practice ice. It also meant some minor hockey teams were able to practise three or four times per week, while others may not be able to guarantee a single practice per week. Or, they're driving an hour to rural rinks just outside the city.
The good news is that in addition to guaranteeing old contracts at the decommissioned city rinks will be honoured at the new facilities, the city is writing a new ice-allocation policy. The timing could not be better -- the city is promising to forge new deals with clubs and user groups that will take old city rinks out of service.
It's hard to argue against more rinks. And getting more community clubs involved is, in the long run, a good thing. However, we won't get much satisfaction from adding to our inventory of rinks if that new ice falls into the hands of the few who already have more than they could possibly need.