The Howard Huskies youth hockey club, frustrated by what one of its leaders calls sustained inattention by the Columbia Ice Rink's owner to outdated, cramped conditions there, has renewed a quest for additional ice elsewhere.
"We really need two sheets of ice, and the Columbia Association won't do any upgrades," said Bud Michels, Huskies vice president and the club officer spearheading a bid for change.
Because of a lack of ice during prime time for school-age children, the club's membership, in effect, has been capped at about 300 players for several years, Michels said - that despite being the only hockey club in a county with a growing number of young people.
"We've actually had to turn away kids because we can't support any more travel teams," he said. "We just don't have enough ice to allow adequate practice time. We've had some kids leave to play in Laurel" at the newer, privately operated, three-rink Gardens Ice House that uses Fairland Regional Park land.
"We've just outgrown that rink, for one thing. Other clubs come here to compete, and we're embarrassed to say that this is our home rink," Michels said, adding that the association sometimes adds other events, such as birthday parties, at the same time the club has ice rented for practices and games.
He said locker rooms at the single-rink Columbia facility, in Oakland Mills Village Center, are too small to accommodate all of the club's high school-age players.
"We're really being dragged down at the feet by the Columbia Association," Michels said, "when what we would like to have done would make them more revenue. We have no complaints, really, with the rink's day-to-day management. It's at the policy level where we'd like to see some changes."
Huskies directors have authorized club leaders to talk with the county's Department of Recreation and Parks about possibly working a deal for new facilities on county-owned land, with a meeting to occur within the next week or so.
The cash-strapped recreation department has expressed in recent months a willingness to listen to any nonprofit group that wants to explore adding fields or other facilities, and the Huskies are the most recent to make noises along those lines.
"We're willing to talk with any group, and we've talked with the Huskies before," said Gary J. Arthur, recreation and parks director. "But they've been unable to come up with any viable financial package."
In an interview, Michels expressed interest in a new recreation and parks facility for in-line skating at Meadowridge Park. The facility is under construction at U.S. 29 and Route 100. But Arthur said planning at Meadowridge is too far along now, in the design phase, to permit changes there.
"We do have land available," Arthur said. "There are some options we can talk about, but they [the Huskies] have to understand that we operate under very strict rules on land use, and there's a public process that has to be followed, which means we can't do anything fast."
Michels acknowledged that a previous Huskies administration eight to 10 years ago made a similar approach and got nowhere.
Robert Bellamy, operations director for the Columbia Park and Recreation Association, alluded to the same former leadership of the Huskies.
"They're a very valuable user-group for the Columbia Ice Rink," Bellamy said. "But from a financial standpoint, ice-rink expansion doesn't seem to be the kind of project that would pay for itself. We did an analysis along those lines for a possible facility at the Sports Park [in Harper's Choice] some years ago, but there never seemed to be a constituency for it."
The Columbia Ice Rink's other major tenant, the Columbia Figure Skating Club, also has complained at times about conditions there. But Vice President Alicia Buckler-White, a longtime club leader, said the group has no interest in expanding the rink now.
"We get along fine with the hockey club, but there've always been problems with scheduling ice time and needing more ice. We've had a couple parents over the years express interest in building our own facility, but nothing has ever come from it."
She agreed with Michels, though, that the Columbia Ice Rink is not as competitive by pricing or quality of facilities as nearby, newer rinks, particularly the Laurel rinks and one at Piney Orchard in the Fort Meade area of Anne Arundel County.