Ohio University player, Jake Faiella, with the puck in Bird Arena at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, on February 3, 2017. The bobcats won 9-0.

Turning up the Heat for a New Bird Arena

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Sean Hogan might be the only college hockey coach in the U.S who has to worry about the weather.

“I’m looking at weather reports all the time,” he said. “Is it supposed to be hot?”

If the answer is yes, Hogan has to improvise. Bird Arena, Ohio’s 61-year-old home, doesn’t have an efficient cooling system to keep the ice, well, ice. It’s one of the numerous issues about the aged arena, which also features a small wooden press box known as “The Bird’s Nest,” one of the smallest visiting benches in the American Collegiate Hockey Association and a roughly 1,000 person seating capacity that’s only possible because of limited leg space.

When the temperatures reach 90 degrees at the beginning of Ohio’s practice season in September and settle between 70-80 degrees in October, the ice surface softens, the puck bounces more and the players’ skate blades have less grip on the ice. Not an ideal combination for hockey.

So, on occasion, Hogan cancels practice for the safety of his players. But his afternoon is only beginning.

When Hogan canceled a practice in 2017, he had to fill the perimeter of Bird Arena’s ice sheet with more frozen, compact ice. The ice sheet’s edges tend to be the worst spots when the arena heats up, and he was desperate to preserve the ice for Ohio’s next two home games in just a few days.

Hogan is paid to be a hockey coach, but the outdated and sometimes dysfunctional Bird Arena requires him to be much more than a coach.

“We wear a variety of hats around here,” he said. “Whatever needs to get done needs to get done.”

Ice problems

As Ohio begins each season, usually in late September, Bird Arena’s ice is ugly. Brown and dark grey spots mar the middle of the slushy rink, and even those attending their first hockey game will notice that nothing about the arena is new.

After Ohio’s season concludes in March and the campus transitions to summer mode in May, the ice is removed. All that remains in the arena is a giant slab of concrete. With the warmer summer months, the temperature inside the empty building is close to the sometimes sweltering temperature outside.

“There’s no circulation or ventilation inside the rink,” Ethan Gates, the head ice-making employee at Bird Arena, said. “It’s just a sweat box.”

The ice compressor plant, which was dormant for months, has to be turned on again in August for the ice to be built. It’s the first step of building a fresh ice sheet in a building that struggles with sustaining efficient air conditioning when the temperatures outside are sizzling.

Gates said the ice compressors are from the 1990s and have not been renovated. Updating the compressors would require the removal of a large chunk of wall and one of the two scoreboards at the arena, a prohibitively expensive process.

Hogan, Gates and the rest of Bird Arena’s ice crew cross their fingers at the start of each ice-making year.

“It really is every year,” Hogan said. “Every year when we build the ice, we hope that [the compressor] turns on. Like, that’s where we’re at.”

In his six years working at the arena, Gates said he has never faced a dead compressor at the beginning of the ice-making season. If it ever does happen, there’s no set plan for what would happen next.

“If the compressors were just to not turn on one year, we’d just have to work on it as best as we can until we can get somewhere with it,” he said. “I’ve always been able to power through at one point or another, just with a little bit of setbacks.”

But making the ice is just the beginning of a months-long battle to keep it in good condition, and it almost always never stays that way. In August, Gates and his seven-person staff were tasked with maintaining the ice despite temperatures that were often well above freezing inside the arena. They sometimes spent entire days tending to the ice.

Gates said that the hardest ice spots to maintain are the edges around the boards. The compressor’s pipes don’t extend the full perimeter of the ice, and Gates and his team had to improvise.

They gathered ice cubes from the arena’s concession stands and patted them into the melted spots on the ice.

“This year was tough,” Gates said. “[The ice cubes] make it really rough and bumpy, but it’s something to have so that people aren’t skating on concrete.”

A new facility

The first step for Ohio’s new home has already been completed.

Any new facility to be built on campus must be mentioned in Ohio University’s Comprehensive Master Plan, an extensive guide detailing how the school will manage present and future demands for buildings on campus.

Bird Arena, and the out-of-date Aquatic Center adjacent to the rink, were finally mentioned in the 2016 version of the plan.

“These facilities face substantial deferred maintenance costs that challenge the long-term cost effectiveness of repairing the existing facilities compared to the cost of new facilities,” the plan said. “Due to the long-term cost of addressing deferred maintenance at Bird Arena and the Aquatic Center, replacement of these facilities is recommended.”

The plan suggested that a new facility could be built next to the Ping Center replacing the tennis center.

While the plan is in place is seen as a huge victory for Ohio, everything after the plan faces a steep uphill climb

It remains unclear how a new facility will be funded. Some of the newest hockey arenas in the country, like Penn State’s Pegula Ice Arena, were funded by a single millionaire or billionaire owner.

There’s no one who will fund such a program for Ohio hockey, which typically has a yearly budget around $100,000.

“No idea,” Hogan said. He shook his head when asked about where the money for a new arena will come. “I don’t know how that works, if we’re going to need some sort of donor program, how that will work or what the timeline is.”

Future outweighs the past

Bird Arena has been a landmark of Ohio’s campus for more than six decades, but the need for a new facility have begun to outweigh the historical value of the facility.

It’s held four national championship teams and a plethora of Athens community events. It’s seen hockey evolve from a sport with no helmets and simple wooden sticks to caged helmets and complex, unique stick styles and curves.

But now it too needs to evolve.

Hogan said he believes that Bird Arena is the most-used building on campus. It hosts the school’s ACHA Division I and Division II hockey teams, the school’s figure skating club and youth skating events, with each group using the rink daily.

But the process for making Bird Arena a functioning building won’t get any easier. A new home is needed, according to Hogan.

“I’m proud of Bird Arena, I really am,” he said. “I love the historical aspect of Bird Arena. I think that part is extremely important, but I think everybody knows that this building is aging, knows that we have problems.”