Coliseum closure leaves St. Paul hockey teams scrambling for ice

The Lee & Rose Warner Coliseum ice rink will close for good in February after Minnesota State Fair officials deemed it too costly to continue operating, leaving several local hockey teams out in the cold.

The rink, which served as home ice for amateur teams ranging from local rec centers to Hamline University, was also drawing fewer and fewer visitors, officials said, sealing its fate. The 62-year-old building in which the rink is housed will remain open year-round, officials said, while continuing to host horse and livestock shows and other special events.

The move has left some local hockey teams scrambling to find a home for next season.

A Ramsey County Parks and Recreation spokeswoman said the county is working closely with several of these programs to find them ice time, primarily at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood. Some teams have expressed concern about having to travel across town or practice at inconvenient times, but the spokeswoman says that’s just how things will be from now on.

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“High schools are going to need ice and colleges are going to need ice. It’s going to chew up ice time,” said Scott Hamilton, an administrator and former coach with the Langford Park Hockey program. Hamilton termed the rink’s closure a major “concern” for the rec center’s youth teams and said coaches would have to get creative in scheduling ice time. In the upcoming season, teams will have to lean more on Aldrich and Oscar Johnson arenas, which are already in high demand.

“If we didn’t get an allotment of ice that met our needs, the last few years we’ve been supplementing more and more with Coliseum ice,” Hamilton said.

A tone of nostalgia creeps into Mike Murphy’s voice when he talks of the arena’s early days.

“I don’t think we’ll miss the ice time as much, but we’ll definitely miss the building,” said Murphy, the president of the Roseville Area Youth Hockey Association (RAYHA). “It’s one of the few rinks in the area that we get to go to that feels like you’re stepping into history.”

Fair officials announced the decision in December, saying the ice-making equipment had corroded to such an extent that it would cost between $1 million and $1.5 million to repair. The rink will close at the end of the current season.

“This decision has been going on for a long time. We just got to the point where the floor is so deteriorated that to continue, it’s day to day at best. We just felt that we needed to come up with a conclusion,” said Mark Goodrich, State Fair deputy general manager.

For years, they weighed whether fixing the equipment, which dates back to the rink’s opening in 1975, would be financially justified. In the end, they decided it was not.

Goodrich pointed out that “the life expectancy on a refrigeration system we have… is at maximum 25 years old, and this one is pushing closer to 40.”

He added that even if officials had gone ahead with the repairs, they would have had to close down the arena for a year to replace the refrigeration unit and the floor, and risk losing tenants to competing rinks in the area.

“What portion of that would come back a year after that happened?” he wondered aloud.

Over the years, the 5,250-seat, 32,400-square-foot Coliseum, once known as the St. Paul Hippodrome, has hosted the teams from the St. Paul Athletic Club and University Club, Hamline and St. Thomas University, several area high schools and the St. Paul Saints, a now-defunct semi-pro hockey club. Its current tenants include Hamline’s women’s team, Como Park Senior High School’s boys, and the Langford Park and Roseville youth and adult hockey leagues. The site also frequently hosted high school boys sectional playoff games.

Officials also blamed the impending closure on dwindling demand. At its height in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Coliseum was hosting nearly 150 games a year, officials said. That number has dropped significantly, they said.

“There’s been a change in the demand, at least at the Coliseum for ice. I would say 20 to 25 years ago, we used to sell ice for an hour or two before school started,” Goodrich said, adding that the pick-up games would resume after school let out and continue through midnight.

He continued: “Twenty years ago, there were numerous high school teams in the St. Paul area and today there’s just a few. So the teams available to play those games are just a lot less.”

The original Hippodrome, built in 1906, was torn down in 1942. The concrete, Art Deco-style Coliseum was erected nine years later.

“From an aesthetics standpoint and from making the game more special, we’re not going to be able to replace that,” Murphy, the RAYHA president, said.

Goodrich echoed his comments: “You walk through the concourse of ours, you feel the aura of all the high school greats that played there; it has a soul to it.”

Libor Jany, a St. Anthony Park native, is a journalist who has worked in newsrooms in Oregon, Mississippi, California, New Jersey and Connecticut.

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