Saturday, 30 September 2017

New Den For The Huskies

It's rare that Canadians see a new arena going up in a major city. We often see improvements to arenas being done, especially at the university level, but the University of Saskatchewan will have a new home for its hockey teams next season as construction on Merlis Blesher Place on the university campus nears completion. To have a shiny new rink for a U Sports team is even rarer, so let's celebrate the efforts of a number of people who contributed to this new construction, most notable the arena's namesake in Merlis Belsher. The Huskies hockey program should have the best rink in Canada West once ice is laid next season.

First off, the rink was named in Merlis Belsher's honour after he made the largest donation in University of Saskatchewan history at $12.25 million. That sort of donation are the kind of private donations that all universities dream of, and Mr. Belsher is a graduate of the commerce and law programs at the university.

Another major contributor was a private fundraising contribution led by former NHL head coach and former Huskies player Dave King and former player and current player agent Tim Hodgson called the Home Ice Campaign. The campaign raised over $28 million for the new arena project, the first new public skating arena built in Saskatoon in over 35 years. The city of Saskatoon also kicked in $4 million for the project.

The image above of the ground-breaking ceremony happened back in April 2017, and the event included featured guest Fred Sasakamoose, the NHL's first Indigenous player, who led a Cree blessing and prayer for the arena. Sheldon Wuttunee did a smudge during the blessing and prayer. "The facility that you have, my grandchildren can share that with you," Sasakamoose told the 100-or-so in attendance.

Upon completion, the new multi-use complex will house twin hockey rinks for the hockey teams with home rink amenities for the hockey squads, two gymnasiums for the volleyball and basketball teams with amenities for the home teams, a dozen additional dressing rooms, sports medicine facilities, weight training facilities, storage areas for the Huskies hockey teams, and locker rooms for the Huskies men's and women's soccer teams, and sit just south of Huskies field house. The new complex will also feature room to hold convocation, conferences, exams, trade shows and other special events.

Upon entering the complex, people will notice the two-story main lobby as the building's focal point. This lobby will feature a reception area with views onto each ice surface, food and beverage facilities, a pro shop with skate sharpening services, and space for a research lab. Needless to say, Merlis Blesher Place will be one of the most impressive campus rinks in Canada and possibly across the world.

Some may ask why the University of Saskatchewan is investing $43 million in a new complex. Well, the answer to that question is an easy one. The Rutherford Rink that the Huskies currently call home has stood for 88 years - far too long for any rink to be used for modern hockey. Kohl Bauml of the men's hockey program was asked if he'll miss any of the little idiosyncrasies of the old barn.

"Some we won't miss, such as the rust delays, overcrowded dressing rooms, and the recurring lack of hot water," Bauml stated matter-of-factly. "Some we will miss, like the atmosphere created by the fans who were being squeezed together shoulder to shoulder."

The new rinks will hold 3437 fans with 150 more in standing room only. The key in getting their money's worth out of the new facility, though, was in the university coming to an agreement with Saskatoon Minor Hockey Association for several hours each week for community programming. SMHA, with its 258 teams, will contribute $500,000 annually for the ice-time in this agreement.

Overall, I think this is incredible for the University of Saskatchewan and the other Canada West teams. No longer will the teams visiting feel like they're walking into an outdated, decrepit barn. Instead, they'll have all the modern amenities of a new rink and some fantastic options they may not have available to them in their own rink.

Men's hockey head coach Dave Adolph sees real opportunity for the university with the new facility. "Everybody’s made a big deal about our facility," he said, "and how it was always a negative in terms of our recruiting process. We've always had the good fortune of getting the Saskatchewan kids to come home, but now, maybe we can reach a little farther. It's going to be an elite complex that elite athletes are going to want to come to."

For a men's team that has had some incredible seasons in their history and for a women's team who has been a solid competitor in Canada West, they'll settle in and get the rinks rocking before you know it. It was time to let Rutherford go after 88 years of service. No rink should be expected to be lively and modern after 616 years (in dog years)!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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