20 years later, ice arena going strong

On Saturday, the New Prague Community Center celebrated its 20th Anniversary.

I not only covered the events that led up to the building of the structure across from New Prague High School, but I also was a hockey parent at the time, so I have some idea not only of what went into getting the project started, but why it was important for the hockey community to get the building started.

Hockey was around in New Prague in the 1970s, but it was not played at the high school level. The youth program sponsored a team for high school students. A few of my friends were players. They practiced outdoors and played their games either outdoors or in Le Sueur or Burnsville, the only two rinks that were within a half-hour’s drive of New Prague. I went to one game, which was played around 10 p.m. on a Friday night in Burnsville.

Hockey was added as a sport in the 1979-80 season in New Prague. For the next 18 years, the team used the Le Sueur rink as its home ice. That meant some early morning practices, since initially, three teams (Le Sueur, Montgomery and New Prague) called the building home. Things improved slightly in the 1980s when Le Sueur paired its program with St. Peter and New Prague and Montgomery-Lonsdale paired their programs, but there were still time issues.

When I moved back to New Prague and my oldest son started playing in the early 1990s, hockey was starting to take off. That meant ice time was becoming harder to find. New arenas were springing up in Chaska, Prior Lake, Waseca and Lakeville, and New Prague grabbed whatever ice it could in these communities. During my son’s first year of “travel hockey,” I kept track of my mileage for one month. I logged more than 1,000 miles going to out of town games, practices and tournaments.

A state grant program, the “Mighty Ducks” grants, helped communities build arenas around the state in the mid-1990s. A group of New Prague hockey families worked hard with the city and school, but could not get either to offer a financial commitment to build an arena. Finally, a non-profit group was formed that committed to raising money, and the school district agreed to sell the land to the city’s Economic Development Authority for $1.

The state issued a second round of Mighty Ducks Grants, and New Prague was approved to receive $250,000. The entire project had an estimated cost of $1 million, and the rest was raised through fundraising, in-kind donations and a bank loan. Hockey families were asked to help in any way they could in building the rink. By late summer, 1996, the building was taking shape. I put in a few hours painting and cleaning, and spent a late night during Thanksgiving weekend putting up the protective netting behind the east end of the rink. Finally, in early December, New Prague had its own rink.

It seems hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the community center has opened. Thousands of youngsters over those 20 years have taken advantage of the home ice.

New Prague hockey sometimes had trouble being competitive. Hockey people were told that within five years of the arena’s opening, you would see positive results. Five years later, the team took a turn toward being competitive in the Missota Conference, having only a handful of losing seasons in the last 15 years. Girls hockey was added in 1999, and, after some early struggles, found itself playing in the state title game in 2004. The boys team also kept improving, winning its first conference title in 2013 and advancing to the state tournament in 2014 and 2015.

It might be easy for today’s hockey families to take our modest little building for granted, but it is one that the hockey community should be proud of. And if you want to experience some excitement, stop by on the night of a high school game and see how far the program has come.