Hockey lovers unite in effort for hometown rink

MIDDLEBURY — Even the dozens of kids running around playing inside Middlebury’s Memorial Sports Center on Saturday afternoon stopped to join the hushed crowd around the big-screen TV sitting on the concrete pad.
In all about 200 hockey lovers at a Middlebury Friends of Hockey Viewing Party were waiting to find out if the rink had won $150,000 in the nationwide Kraft Hockeyville USA contest.
But when National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman came on camera between periods of an NHL playoff game and announced the winner the crowd groaned.
Despite the fact that almost all had spent hours at their computers convincing the Hockeyville website they weren’t robots and thus could vote hundreds of times in favor of their hometown rink, they had been outvoted — Bettman announced Clinton, N.Y., had won the $150,000 grand cash prize and would also host an NHL preseason game.
A roofless arena in Brandon, S.D., finished second and earned $30,000 toward rink renovations, and a Middlebury rink that serves skaters around Addison County tied for third with a facility in the city of Shreveport, La.; each earned $10,000.
But despite the disappointment, most at the viewing party organized by the Friends of Middlebury Hockey saw the silver lining.
Hockey mom of three Amy Rubright shared her thoughts in an email, noting for one thing that Shreveport is about 20 times the size of Middlebury.
“The whole event was so wonderful and even though we didn’t win, we sure saw some amazing support from our community,” Rubright said. “All the love and support our hockey family was shown over the last couple weeks is exactly why all the hockey hustle is worth it for me. I love that my kids learned that a small town can get more votes than a large city because even though we have less people, we all care a lot about each other.”
The $150,000 for first place would have put the Memorial Sports Center over the top in one final major fundraising campaign.
Friends of Middlebury Hockey has raised a little more than $200,000 toward the $350,000 needed to add 6,000 square feet to the rink, including a second-level heated viewing area over its locker rooms, an elevator to reach it, a multi-purpose meeting room, a better concession stand, enhanced Wi-Fi, and for the first time public rest rooms in the building.
Friends of Middlebury Hockey President Mike McAuliffe drew applause even after the disappointing news. He reminded the hockey parents and players (many are both) how much they had done to reach the final four — in the nominating process rink backers submitted more than 130 videos, pictures and stories illustrating the rink’s value to families and their towns.
McAuliffe afterward said the effort highlighted what the 25-year-old, self-funded, nonprofit rink (no tax money goes toward it) has in turn meant to so many.
“First, of course, congratulations to Clinton. Congratulations to the other two communities, Shreveport and Brandon. If they had an experience like we had here, regardless of where they came in, they will be stronger coming out of this,” he said. “We got a great community experience out of this.”
McAuliffe, who took over the top position at Friends of Middlebury Hockey in early 2017, moved to Weybridge from California in 2014. A former Texas rink manager, he, his wife and son all play hockey.
The rink in Middlebury has made a major difference in their quality of life, he said.
“The community here was incredibly welcoming,” McAuliffe said. “Especially moving here three-and-a-half years ago, our lives would not be as full here as they would have been without this hockey community.”
ABOUT 200 MEMORIAL Sports Center supporters gathered at the rink on Saturday at a viewing party sponsored by Friends of Middlebury Hockey. They hoped to learn during the broadcast of an NHL hockey game shown there on a big-screen TV that their rink had won $150,000 in the Kraft Hockeyville USA contest, but the rink instead will receive a $10,000 prize even though most had voted online hundreds of times in the competition. But backers enjoyed the event and remain enthusiastic about the rink and a planned expansion project.
Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy
Unlike those other rinks in the Hockeyville contest, McAuliffe said in Middlebury hockey and the rink are nonprofit ventures largely run by volunteers in a way that fosters friendship.
“Especially in the rink in Texas, they had a hard time staying open, because there’s no attachment from the community to what’s going on inside that building,” he said. “For us to move here and find a community where hockey is a nonprofit, volunteer-based legacy part of the community was incredibly exciting.”
Howard Hall, who moved to Panton from Chicago in 2010, tells a similar tale. The real estate broker showing him around learned that Hall was a hockey goalie and told him all he had to do was contact the rink.
Hall did so and heard back within 90 minutes; he said the Memorial Sports Center eased his transition into a new area.
“My email got spread to about seven teams, and they were all saying we’ll put you on the list as a goalie,” Hall said.
The emails turned into regular gigs on Monday nights, Thursday mornings and more. Hall said he made friends quickly.
“These were the nicest guys and women. It was just really fun to play with them,” he said. “They were just having fun, but they were playing hard.”
Hall, a former firefighter, for examples mentioned regularly swapping stories with a female emergency medical technician and discussing beekeeping with a maple syrup producer.
“You make a lot of nice connections that I never would have made without playing hockey. That’s the amazing thing,” he said.
It’s also no coincidence that McAuliffe and Hall call Weybridge and Panton home, respectively, said Middlebury Union High School math teacher Derek Bartlett, better known at the rink as an MUHS and youth hockey coach.
Bartlett, a Middlebury resident, has coached players from all over the county because MUHS has cooperative agreements with other schools, and the Middlebury Amateur Hockey Association has always cast a wide net.
“If you think of where we draw for the youth program, and how that feeds the high school program, it’s really an Addison County program,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett also detailed the rink’s growth. His youth hockey days predate a town rink, and his coaching years coincide with steady improvements to the Memorial Sports Center.
“We used to skate on the tennis courts. They would flood them, and that was our youth hockey experience,” Bartlett said. “And then we’d play at Duke Nelson (Arena at Middlebury College) at 7 a.m. That was our hockey season.”
Bartlett remembers returning in the mid-1990s when the sport center’s north and south ends were open to the elements, locker rooms were storage boxes, and ice-making was still a pipe dream.
“It was a natural sheet of ice: OK, it’s cold enough, let’s flood the rink,” he recalled.
Slowly more elements were added: ice-making, locker rooms, concessions stands, overhead heating for the stands.
“It’s unbelievable over time how people have always rallied to the cause,” Bartlett said.
McAuliffe hopes the Hockeyville momentum will help what the Friends of Middlebury Hockey is calling the “Heat It Up” campaign to reach its $350,000 goal. That slogan honors the heating system planned for the 150-person viewing area, a welcome addition to a rink sometimes referred to as “the ice palace.”
“We hope that the excitement within our community over Hockeyville will continue with a renewed interest in making small donations at www.mscgift.org so that we can complete the second floor expansion and achieve the original vision for Memorial Sports Center,” he wrote in an email.
On this past Saturday, Bartlett wasn’t thinking that far ahead.
“Look at today. The turnout is awesome,” he said. “Regardless of what happens this is such a great sense of community.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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