Denfeld News

May 3, 2008
Duluth News Tribune

Heritage Sports Center new home for Duluth hockey
By Kevin Pates

Fifth-graders Alex Burke and Cody Budisalovich stepped onto the ice at Heritage Arena on Friday afternoon and felt like they were home.

The rink at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center was being christened with the first official game — the opener of the 2008 AAA Hockey Showdown youth tournament — and Burke and Budisalovich were the only Duluthians on the winning Northern Wings team. They live about 10 minutes from the glistening $15.6 million complex, which will house the city’s youth and high school teams.

“People from all over the state have heard about this building. It looks just as good as they said it would be,’’ said Burke, 11, a goalie. “We were excited to be here and to be the first team to win a game.”

For the record, the Northern Wings defeated the Minnesota Flames, from the St. Cloud, Minn., area, 8-2 with about 300 people enjoying the historic day. Burke and Budisalovich, students at Laura MacArthur Elementary, had parents, grandparents and siblings in attendance.

Two former Duluth youth players, Kevin Morrison of Morgan Park and Duane Battisti of Lower Chester Park, were the officials. Duluth Amateur Hockey Association executive director Clarke Coole drove the Zamboni — 12 years since his last time atop an ice resurfacing machine.

“This is our rink and it was fun to see how nice it looked,’’ said 11-year-old Budisalovich, a left winger.

He had gotten a sneak peak when his dad, Tom, a tournament organizer, was at the rink Thursday during open public skating. The 32-team Hockey Showdown splits 64 games among four sites, with 18 games at the Heritage Arena.

Long wait for new rink

Duluthians had been waiting more than three years for a replacement for Peterson Arena, a city rink built in about 1972 and destroyed by fire in December 2004. A grass-roots effort, fueled by volunteers, led to the Heritage Sports Center at 29th Avenue West and Michigan Street. And while an official grand opening is set for fall, interested hockey fans were getting acquainted Friday.

“You could look all over the state and not find a youth-hockey complex as nice as this,’’ said Gordy Atol, rink manager at Duluth’s Fryberger Arena, who was lending a hand.

The unique, old-style look of the complex is highlighted by a brick interior, cleaned up from the Clyde Iron industrial site. Patrons climb the stairs from Heritage Hall to the Heritage Arena concourse, which provides a view of the bowl seating area. The setup is remindful of Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis and the proposed DECC expansion with fans walking down into seats and, at the Heritage Arena, getting as close to the ice surface as is possible. The rink seats 1,400 spectators.

Extensive artwork and photos detailing the city’s hockey history are planned, although only one piece is in place, a mural at the top of the main staircase. Artist Tim Cortes, a former Duluth East goalie, depicts a youngster dropping a puck for a faceoff between two buddies.

“Almost everyone I’ve seen coming in here for the first time, their reaction is ‘Wow,’ and their eyes are wide open,’’ said Coole, who has a Duluth Amateur Hockey Association office in the building. “It was an amazing effort from a lot of people to get this done and I give a lot of credit to our organizers Dick Loraas [chairman of the board for the nonprofit Duluth Heritage Sports Center Foundation] and Pat Francisco [fundraising committee chairman].”

When in the building Thursday, Francisco was stopped every few feet by well-wishers offering congratulations. Coole received some of the same accolades Friday.

New home for many

Brad Onofreychuk is spending his first week on the job as facilities manager of the complex. The native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, had previously worked as a rink manager with the West Fargo, N.D., park district. He said it took little time to decide to take the job in Duluth.

“I walked in for a tour of the building and fell in love with the place in just a few minutes,” said Onofreychuk, 32, who has been in the hockey arena business nine years. “This is something more than a typical arena because of the intimate atmosphere and overall aesthetics.”

Duluth’s three high school boys teams and one girls team will play nearly all varsity games at the Heritage Arena in 2008-09. Each team has a 36-player locker room in Heritage Hall. The city also has approximately 63 youth teams, and Coole hopes to get at least one game in the new building for each youth team next season.

Duluth East High School boys coach Mike Randolph got his first look at the rink this week and was effusive in praise of his team’s new home.

“I’ve been to just about every high school rink in Minnesota and there isn’t a better building, and it will energize hockey in the area,” Randolph said.

“I’m old-fashioned and I like the character in here. It’s not extravagant, it’s tasteful,” said Northern Wings coach Guy LeBlanc of Hermantown.

The second phase of construction, for the Heritage Pavilion, is expected to begin May 15 and be completed no later than Christmas. The pavilion will be a connecting rink with seating for about 1,100.

The next gathering at the rink is a Founders Day event, tentatively scheduled for May 17, to honor three of Duluth’s most notable hockey families — Peterson, Fryberger and Williams. Portraits of the families will be the central art on the rink’s main wall.

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