At 6:15 a.m. on a Sunday in mid-January, the St. Mary’s Ryken ice hockey team took the ice at Capital Clubhouse in Waldorf for its weekly practice. The harsh fluorescent light contrasted with the inky pre-dawn of a cold, drab day. In the windowless rink area, parents sat around picnic tables with large coffees and stared at their smartphones, chatted with each other or simply looked out at the Knights’ practice.
Every Sunday during the season, St. Mary’s Ryken sophomore Andrew Williams gets up at 5 a.m. to make the 45-minute drive from his Leonardtown home, and most of his teammates do the same.
When Williams started playing ice hockey four years ago, he wasn’t expecting long drives and late nights to become staples. He assumed there were a few rinks within a half-hour drive of his home and, aside from the occasional lengthy road trip, things would be relatively convenient.
He has found that’s not the case. The number of ice rinks has remained stagnant in the past decade while the sport’s growth has exploded in the D.C. region. In The Washington Post’s coverage area, there are 105 combined varsity and junior varsity teams in the Maryland Student Hockey League , Northern Virginia Scholastic Hockey League and Mid-Atlantic Prep Hockey League this year. There are only 18 rinks with 24 sheets of ice.
Capital Clubhouse was the most recent rink to open in the Maryland suburbs in 2005. Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington opened in 2006, and Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast remains the District’s lone venue.
The lack of availability leaves inconvenient practice times or no practices at all for long stretches for teams such as Virginia powers Stone Bridge and Woodbridge, long drives and a lack of flexibility if inclement weather impacts scheduling. Despite the sport’s increasing popularity, the demand for ice time hinders growth.
“It’s definitely a discouragement to a lot of players, especially down this far south,” Williams said. “I know a lot of people that wish they could play ice hockey, but they just don’t have time. So they settle for roller hockey and stuff. It’s definitely discouraging, all the long drives and time that you put into it.”
Local ice hockey owes some of the credit for its spike in popularity to the Washington Capitals — Ty Newberry, the executive director and general manager of Fort Dupont Ice Arena, called it the “Alexander Ovechkin effect” — and the team’s success over the past decade. Visibility for the sport has increased, and younger players trying to get into the sport have an area superstar to look up to.
For instance, in St. Mary’s County, where St. Mary’s Ryken is located, registrations with USA Hockey jumped 63 percent between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons.
All those players have to play somewhere.
“It’s not like a baseball diamond where there’s one every six or seven blocks in this city or a soccer field,” Newberry said of Fort Dupont. “This is it.”
Competition for ice time is intense. Aside from high school ice hockey teams looking to book and often pay for their own slots, there are adult leagues, which usually take late-night slots; club teams; figure skating; speed skating; and public skates also vying for openings.
Each league handles corralling ice time differently. In the MSHL, teams book it on their own. NVSHL teams purchase five slots and donate those to the league to make its schedule, including for its middle school league. In the MAPHL, the area private school league, each team books its own ice time and works out its schedule.
Some coaches reserve ice time a year in advance, but for other teams, the process is challenging. Annapolis/Old Mill used to play at Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, but it became too difficult to get time slots there. So Coach Chris Hinsvark started securing time at Gardens Ice House on Mondays at 8 p.m.
“We basically wait for the club teams,” Hinsvark said. “They’re buying it in much larger quantities. We’re just looking for scraps.”
Hinsvark said the distance — Annapolis High is about 30 miles from the rink — has discouraged prospective players from coming out for the team, and once the season starts, game days are usually the only time the team gets on the ice.
The MPSSAA and VHSL do not recognize ice hockey as a varsity sport, meaning public school teams in both states are often responsible for their own funding and organization. The D.C. State Athletic Association recognizes ice hockey as a varsity sport, but no District public high school has its own team. The D.C. Stars, a co-op team consisting of players from a variety of public and private schools, play in the MSHL.
Schools in the MAPHL, which includes some of the area’s top teams, recognize ice hockey as a varsity sport. The teams at those schools are overseen by the athletic departments, and the schools provide some funding. That allows MAPHL schools to be on the ice four or five times per week in some cases. Landon even bought a sheet of ice at Rockville Ice Arena and rents it to other teams.
On a Friday night last month, Rockville Ice Arena was a hive of activity. Churchill was meeting Wootton in a rivalry game, and a capacity crowd milled around the rink waiting for the matchup to start at Rink No. 2. At the same time, middle schoolers chattered in small groups while parents helped their children fit into their skates for the public skate at Rink No. 3. There were still three other games scheduled for that night, the last set to start at 9:50.
That’s the scene MSHL President and St. Mary’s Ryken Coach Chris Palombi and others believe would play out at a new rink or a new sheet. There’s enough demand, and Newberry described it as “putting 10 pounds of junk in a five-pound bag.”
The future should bring positive developments. Fort Dupont Ice Arena, built in 1976, is hoping to break ground on a two-sheet facility. Bowie, which opened a one-sheet rink in 1971, explored the option of constructing a two-sheet facility in 2013 and estimated the construction cost at $10.66 million. The facility, which the city hopes will be completed by 2018, was approved in May, and city officials are working to find a location. Palombi and MSHL Vice President and Atholton Coach Bud Michels both have contacted local municipal leaders and business developers in hopes of gaining support for new facilities.
But until one is built, ice hockey’s growth is expected to plateau as early mornings, late nights and distant treks remain the norm.
“It’s just a killer having those long drives,” Williams said. “If we had a rink down here, the community would be involved in it, and we’d get a lot more turnout for people trying hockey.”