Adult, high school, youth hockey programs co-existing under one roof

AREAWIDE – Hockey programs from the youth level up to the 50-and-over level have had lots to deal with over the last seven months. Since the closing of Lapeer’s Polar Palace in April, many youth programs and adult leagues have had to find a new home, with Crystal Fieldhouse in Burton opening its doors to its already-busy rotation.

Because of that, some of the adult leagues have been pushed to meeting later in the evening for games, while others have always included these late-night contests.

One of the latest-running leagues at Crystal Fieldhouse is the 50+ adult league, which runs games from 7:15- 11:05 p.m. Other leagues including the 18+ and 35+ adult leagues run until 10:50 p.m., with many of the participants not leaving the rink until midnight. However, according to Michelle Wisenbaugh, rink manager at Crystal Fieldhouse, this is nothing new.

“These late-night adult league games are nothing new to our 35-andover Wednesday and Thursday night leagues and 50-and-over Monday night league,” said Wisenbaugh. “It just takes them back to the 80’s and 90’s when they were walking out of the IMA (now Dort Federal Credit Union Event Center) at midnight.

“When Polar Palace closed, basically we added in a Wednesday and Thursday league, which that’s what Polar Palace was doing,” continued Wisenbaugh. “So, our games on Sunday’s are at the exact same times; that never changed. The only thing is that the Wednesday and Thursday leagues that were in the Polar Palace that came over are now running late. Yes, it’s different than what they were used to at Polar Palace, but coming over here they knew that the youth had to have those earlier times.”

Crystal Fieldhouse has also been working to accommodate a large amount of youth, high school and college programs. Lapeer High’s co-op team, Kettering University and University of Michigan-Flint all require rink time throughout the week, while other high school programs including Davison and Grand Blanc will also use Crystal Fieldhouse on occasion when their home arena, Dort Federal, is not available because of the Ontario Hockey League Flint Firebirds’ needs/schedules.

Balancing all of these programs requiring rink time can be a challenge, as highlighted by Wisenbaugh.

“We had meetings with the team reps, so before they even signed on, they knew,” said Wisenbaugh. “Before the season started, we had it listed on our website exactly what times the leagues would get because we met with all of the youth and we knew how much ice our youth needed to have. The adult men, they know, and they’re like ‘we have to let the kids play’, so it’s a no-brainer.”

“We haven’t had any trouble,” said LCHA president Scott Burny. “Michelle [Wisenbaugh] has done an outstanding job. Basically, what they’ve done is given the north rink ice time to the Greater Flint Hockey Association and the south rink was given to the Lapeer County Hockey Association.”

With roughly 110 youth players, Lapeer County Hockey Association had to calm fears that a loss of participation would follow, but the LCHA only saw a slight dip. The organization now fields nine teams, after sporting 10 a year ago.

“Sometimes, the teams age out a little bit, but, with our transition from our rink [the Polar Palace] closing with really no notice, to getting everything moved over to Crystal Fieldhouse and trying to get the word out that the Lapeer County Hockey Association is alive and well and thriving, we were able to have minimal loss of players,” added Burny.

“There was a dip,” he continued. “The 2004- ‘06 birth years had a little dip, but in the last couple of years, we’ve seen our numbers increase. For the 2008 birth year through 2012 and 2013, there has been an increase. Last year, we had about 50 kids in our 6U/8U program. With the move, initially we lost a few. As parents were getting antsy, they didn’t know if we were going to be around or not. Since then, our numbers are back up to 50 or so for the 6U/8U group. In 10U, we have a pretty strong team. In 12U, we have 18 players on that team.”

Jeff Barat, president of the Greater Flint Hockey Association, stated that the association has had no trouble finding ice time at Crystal Fieldhouse, which has been Flint’s home rink since the facility’s opening in 2014. This season, the GFHA sports eight teams totaling 157 players.

“We started with six kids, and we’ve been getting more and more every year,” said Barat. “We have 69 eight-and-under children right now. Numbers are way up in all state programs, so it’s not that we’ve stolen kids from other programs. They’re all way up.”

According to Terese Tucker, member at-large and trustee for the GFHA, the association’s 8U team has doubled in size since 2017.

“I feel like hockey in the Flint area is coming back around for all three programs in Genesee County,” said Tucker.

Burny agrees that all programs have benefited.

“The LCHA is alive and well and growing at our new home at Crystal Fieldhouse,” said Burny. “Having two associations there offers parents a chance to work around schedules because we [the Lapeer and Greater Flint associations] do offset a little bit with one another. It’s priced right, and there’s a lot of times where parents aren’t paying any more for their kid to play hockey from September through March than they would to play baseball for three months. Sometimes when you break it down, hockey is almost more affordable.”