Why are NHL teams deciding to move out of the confines of their home arenas for both game-day skates and off-day practices? The answer is practice facilities for professional hockey franchises have become a business necessity and good business. The rinks that house the NHL teams are multi-purpose sports and entertainment facilities that host events, in some cases, every day. Finding available practice ice-time for both home and visiting teams has become a challenge, not to mention the increased costs of renting ice in a major arena.
The Minnesota Wild, Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal Canadiens, Vegas Golden Knights, and Chicago Blackhawks have elected to establish practice facilities in other locations for financial, recruiting, and community engagement reasons. Three of these teams have recognized the value of creating practice facilities in outlying areas of their home city.
Real estate prices and rental costs are lower outside the city core, allowing players to live close to the practice facility at considerable savings. Establishing roots in outlying areas also helps the teams to connect closer to the suburb communities and contributes to the development of the city. Separate practice facilities provide additional ice surfaces that can be used by minor hockey organizations, figure skating clubs, speed skaters, and the general public. Most facilities provide public access during team practices to further enhance fan engagement and loyalty.
Let’s take a look at some of the teams that are using their practice facilities to help pave their way to a Stanley Cup Championship, while effectively giving back to their local communities.
Minnesota Wild (Tria Rink)
The Minnesota Wild play their home games in the Xcel Energy Center which is considered one of the top arenas in the NHL. It is also one of the top facilities in the United States for concerts, events, and gatherings, therefore in use almost 365 days per year.
Limited availability of practice time in the Xcel Energy Center made it necessary for the Wild to find a permanent home for the team for both training and practice needs. “This has been a high priority within our organization for many years,” Wild vice president of new business development Jamie Spencer said after the team announced it had signed a lease for a new facility, the Tria Rink, in downtown St. Paul.
Previous to this announcement the team was forced to move practices to several other locations around the Twin Cities, including the University of Minnesota’s Ridder Arena, Braemar Arena in Edina, and St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights. The medical and training staff were forced to pack up the medical gear, training tables, locker stalls, and video equipment. The Wild players, coaches, and training staff had no place they could call home.
Spencer and the entire Wild organization realized how important this decision was to the future success of the franchise and the relationship with their fans. “If we’re going to fulfill our goal of building a Stanley Cup-winning team, practice is obviously a vital part of success, and this facility not only allows us to do that but also fulfills our mission as an organization to create a Greater State of Hockey, which is why we’ll be hosting youth hockey tournaments, ice skating and other events in the new facility. We’re excited to be a partner of an exciting project that will change downtown St. Paul forever”, he said.
Pittsburgh Penguins (UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex)
The Pittsburgh Penguins have recognized the value of having a permanent practice and training home. They view the facility as not only a practice rink but also as an injury prevention and treatment facility.
The Pittsburgh Penguins opened their new UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in 2015 in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania. They partnered with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to provide a full range of medical services to both the Penguins and the general public. According to NHL.com, “Within the complex’s half-mile perimeter are two full-size hockey rinks, one specifically for the Penguins and one for public use; a sports medicine clinic with 24 private patient rooms; a physical therapy gym that overlooks Pittsburgh’s practice rink; on-site MRI and X-ray imaging; 1,500 square feet of hockey-skills training space; and 14 locker rooms, including one which is an exact replica of the Penguins’ locker room at Consol Energy Center, the team’s home arena”.
The Penguins viewed this investment and partnership as an opportunity to not only provide a facility to treat players but also act as a magnet to attract quality free agents that were interested in the value of this medical treatment capability focusing on player health and well-being. Sidney Crosby has access to facilities that will help to extend his impressive career.
Montreal Canadiens (Bell Sports Complex)
In 2008 the Montreal Canadians opened the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard, Quebec as their new practice facility. Their objectives were to develop an impressive facility in suburban Montreal that would be envied by the league and make it an attractive feature for free agents to consider.
Providing public access to the facility for minor hockey and skating was a priority for the Habs to support the community. The complex includes indoor soccer and tennis facilities, in addition to the ice surface. The team allows fans to attend pre-game skates and practice sessions which has improved community engagement and allowed fans to get closer to the players.
The players are very impressed with the amenities of the facility, according to John Sedgewick, the team’s Vice-President Hockey Operations. The dressing room is more extensive than what the team has at the Bell Centre, while the training and medical areas are state of the art. The organization is hoping the facility will help them in attracting quality free agents; something that has been an issue for the Canadiens in recent years.
Vegas Golden Knights (City National Arena)
The Vegas Golden Knights decided to build their practice facility in Summerlin, Nevada which is located about 20 to 25 minutes from T-Mobile Arena, the team’s home rink. City National Arena was opened Sept. 18, 2017, doubling as the franchise headquarters.
With Las Vegas being a non-traditional hockey market, the team felt it was essential to use the practice facility to grow the game at the grassroots level and integrate the team into the local community. According to Clark County Commissioner Susan Barger, the potential to introduce the game among area youth in this non-traditional hockey market was encouraging. “I’m excited about our youth. They have to beg for ice, and they won’t have to do that anymore,” she said of the additional two sheets of ice that now services the local youth hockey community when the NHL team isn’t using it (from “GM says Las Vegas NHL practice facility will be ‘best of its kind’ – photos”, Las Vegas Review-Journal – 10/5/16).
It appears that the Golden Knights impressive performance last season both on the ice, and at the gate, could be attributed, in part, to their new community-based practice facility.
Chicago Blackhawks (Community Ice Arena)
Giving back to the community is a priority for the Chicago Blackhawks. Last year they continued with that organizational focus by opening the new Community Ice Arena located a couple of blocks south of their home arena, the United Center. The $65 million project was nearly two years in the making, providing a new practice facility for the Blackhawks and the local community, with a state-of-the-art rink to learn and play hockey.
“We could’ve built, on our own United Center land, one ice rink,” Blackhawks chairman and owner Rocky Wirtz said. “But that wouldn’t have been of use to the community the way we want to use this and tie it in. This is for the community. This is for everyone in the neighborhood, not just for a few players, the upper staff and our coaches and trainers. This is truly a community effort. This is another way the Blackhawks can give back.”
The players are excited about what the facility offers as a training center. There is a new game-day skate and practice ice surface, combined with an elaborate new weight room, and the addition of specialty-skills rooms for shooting and stickhandling.
Even before the new facility opened, players like Patrick Kane were excited about moving to the new building. “It sounds like it’s going to be a place you can come to, and feel comfortable and [will make] you want to get to work too,” Kane said. “There are things you want to work on at practice on the ice, but there are things off the ice too, whether it’s keeping your body in shape or working on your shot or stickhandling. I’m excited about those things. It’s state-of-the-art, so we’ll be enjoying it.”
These teams are motivated by the financial advantages of separate practice facilities and understand the value they bring to their free-agent recruiting efforts and the development of their players. An often used term in today’s business community, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), is the other priority for these teams. Giving back to the community, growing the game, and engaging both existing and new fans supports the best practices of CSR conscious organizations.