ROSTRAVER TWP, Pa. — Sitting on a hill above State Route 51 in Rostraver Township, The Ice Garden has been a community staple in the Mon Valley since its construction in 1965.
Jim Murphy, who has owned the facility for 25 years, calls it “an entertainment complex.” Murphy has hosted home shows, professional wrestling, comedy nights, and concerts. He added a restaurant and two banquet rooms to the facility.
But in its heart and soul, The Ice Garden has always been a hockey rink. Sunday morning, it hosted hockey being played at its highest level, as the two-time defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins took to the Garden’s ice for a public practice.
The event, attended by a capacity crowd of 2,150, was part of the reward for the rink winning Kraft’s Hockeyville USA promotion, which consisted of an online fan vote to determine the hockey rink that was most deserving of $150,000 in arena upgrades and the chance to host an NHL preseason game.
The Ice Garden was selected from over 1,300 rinks nominated for the award, and though the building was deemed not to be in good enough condition to host a preseason game — the Penguins will play the St. Louis Blues at their practice facility in Cranberry Township instead — the team did bus down to Rostraver for a game-day practice.
It was a chance for local hockey fans to connect with their favorite Penguins players, with a red-carpet entrance and autographic session taking nearly as long as practice did. It’s also a chance for the community to re-connect with the arena, which has seen some of the promised upgrades already completed.
The rink got new LED lights over the playing surface, netting to protect spectators, new kick plates for the boards, along with new banners hanging in the north end of the building and improvements to the lobby.
Less visible changes include a laser guidance system for one of the Zambonis, new cooling pipes for the ice surface, improved air conditioning and upgrades to the locker rooms. That’s not to say the arena has lost any of its old-school charm. In fact, that’s one of the reasons the arena was selected.
“It’s where, in the small towns, a lot of kids grew up playing,” said Penguins defenseman Ian Cole, who is from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “It’s just small rinks, not necessarily those big, seven-sheet facilities. It’s the one ice surface rinks that are in small communities. That’s what I grew up on at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Ann Arbor. It’s a place that I love to go back and skate whenever I get a chance when I’m home. There’s a certain character to those rinks and making sure that they’re protected and taken care of to grow along with the game is huge.”
The wood paneling in the north end and a few sections of the original arched wooden roof still stand, with the rest replaced after a 2010 snowfall-induced collapse. The fact that the arena was rebuilt after that accident is a testament to the determination of Murphy to keep it a fixture in the community.
“Everything I have financially has gone into the facility,” he said. “When I bought this building, it didn’t have running water and it didn’t have a sanitary sewer. They had concrete cisterns that collected the rainwater and that’s the water they used to make the ice.”
It hasn’t been easy. After the roof collapse, battles with insurance carriers dragged on as local hockey teams found other places to play.
“We got paid 50 cents on the dollar from the insurance carrier,” Murphy said. “Even though I had a press conference with my wife and the local leaders of the community that I intended to rebuild, my competitors went to my licensees and told them, ‘We will guarantee you ice, but you’ve got to sign a three-year deal.’ Most of the licensees went to other rinks because they were guaranteed an ice slot for three years. For three years after the roof collapse that I rebuilt, I suffered tremendously because I had no one to put on the ice.”
Most of Murphy’s tenants have returned, but the business remains tough. The Mon Valley area has been economically depressed since the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s and hockey remains an expensive sport to play. Though the Penguins are more popular than ever, local clubs at times have struggled to field teams.
Just this summer, Serra Catholic High School shuttered its program, with the remaining players joining up with Elizabeth Forward. That leaves Murphy with them, Ringgold, Thomas Jefferson, California University of Pennsylvania and the Mon Valley Thunder youth program as tenants. He sees the Hockeyville win as one that can help keep the facility alive and thriving for years to come.
“It’s a shot in the arm,” he said. “People come here and they go to public skate. They learn to play hockey here. Some of the people that have had their wedding reception here tell me that they met staking at The Ice Garden. People come on Friday and Saturday night. Their kids go on the ice and they go up into the restaurant, get a beer and a sandwich and talk about their week.”
The benefits of the arrangement are far from one-sided, as well. Spending a day time with local fans and youth players isn’t something most of the Penguins get to do on a regular basis, and with the roster sent to Rostraver a young one, many of the players aren’t all that far removed from being on the other side of the fence, asking for autographs themselves.
“When I was a kid, going to things like this, I loved getting to meet guys at the U.S. program where I grew up in Ann Arbor or at the University of Michigan where I grew up,” said Cole, who at 28, was the elder statesman of the Penguins representatives. “Meeting those guys was like meeting Wayne Gretzky when I was a kid. Any time that you have a chance to give back and maybe influence a young kid here, maybe there’s a kid here that’s going to be in the NHL someday down the road. Any time you get the opportunity, I think you have to give back.“