Santa Barbara area sees explosive growth, thanks to Ice in Paradise
Erik Norton was five years old when he attended his first city council meeting, a rabid hockey fan and a budding Mite player who wanted nothing more than a hometown rink.
More than 20 years later, with many stops and starts along the way, that vision finally became a reality last fall, and Norton intends to fully take advantage of the dream that he and so many others in the Santa Barbara area have been waiting for so long.
The opening last October of Ice in Paradise, a sparkling 46,500 square-foot facility in the Santa Barbara suburb of Goleta, has sparked a boom of interest in hockey and figure skating in not only the greater Santa Barbara area, but also up California’s Central Coast. It has reinvigorated enthusiasts in an area that has a surprising passion for ice sports, and it’s easy to project how the new arena could promote growth in the years ahead.
“Dreams can come true,” said Norton, now the youth hockey director at Ice in Paradise. “My dream, and the dream of a bunch of my friends that I grew up playing hockey with, was to have an ice rink in our town. We have that now, and we’re extremely thankful for all the people that put so much time, money and effort into making this a reality.”
For years, hockey players in the Santa Barbara area, a region with approximately 200,000 people, would have to drive 45 minutes or more – to places like Oxnard or Valencia – to find a sheet of ice, or played roller hockey if commuting to a faraway rink wasn’t feasible. Around the early 1990s, some local residents began an effort to build a rink, but various hurdles kept the project from getting off the ground. Eventually, businessman and local hockey supporter Jack Norqual stepped to the forefront of the project and brought in late Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider to spearhead a fundraising campaign.
The efforts and connections of Norqual and Snider, among many others, led to land being donated to the not-for-profit effort, and two years ago, the first shovel went in the ground. The arena – which features a NHL-sized rink and a smaller sheet of ice, along with all the amenities one would expect in a brand new, world-class facility – opened in October 2015 to swarms of hockey players and figure skaters who couldn’t wait to lace up their skates.
“There were a lot of people waiting with hockey sticks in hand,” said Larry Bruyere, the general manager of Ice in Paradise and a veteran of the hockey world who has managed rinks in Oxnard, Valencia and Van Nuys, among other places, during his nearly three decades in the sport. He noted that the area had a rink through the early 1980s, and while it fell into disrepair and eventually closed, the region’s passion for hockey never waned.
The activity at Ice in Paradise has been nearly non-stop since its doors opened. Its adult league far exceeded expectations for participation, with 24 teams registering. It is the home ice for UC Santa Barbara’s club team and hosted a college tournament in February. The Santa Barbara Royals of the L.A. Kings High School Hockey League call the rink home, and recently won the league’s first championship.
There is also an in-house youth hockey program, and a new youth program, the Santa Barbara Icehawks, is set to begin play in the Southern California Amateur Hockey Association this fall. Bruyere said the Icehawks are expected to have Squirt, Pee Wee and Bantam teams in their first season, and tryouts will be held in June.
In the coming years, the Icehawks could expand to offer teams from Mites to Midgets and possibly grow to offer multiple teams at each age group. Norton can also foresee high school hockey becoming popular enough that the area’s three large high schools each have their own team. Currently, the Royals draw players from each of the three schools.
“It’s hard to say how fast the program will grow, but the only thing that will likely slow us down is available ice time,” Bruyere said. “But we’ll just start earlier and finish later every day. And the smaller rink we have is great for doing some of the things that the American Development Model and USA Hockey suggest – it works very well for all levels. We’re a not-for-profit organization, and our goal is to keep things affordable for families.”
When Steve Heinze completed his 12-year NHL career after playing the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, he moved to Santa Barbara to be close to family. After getting his kids into schools and settling in, the Massachusetts native’s next thoughts turned to hockey.
“I thought to myself, ‘Where’s the rink? Let me get involved,’” Heinze recalled. “I came across the website for Ice in Paradise and immediately set up a meeting with John Ewasiuk, who was an original board member and has become a good friend. I got to know the people in the hockey community here.”
Heinze now coaches the Royals in the Kings high school league, and said he’ll be involved as much as possible in the Icehawks program. He’ll help coach his youngest son, 10-year-old Eli, and will serve as a coach overseeing the development of all the program’s teams and players.
“Where I grew up, we had three rinks in our hometown, so having this rink here makes it sort of feel like home for me, and we didn’t have half the population of Santa Barbara,” Heinze said with a laugh. “I think this will benefit generations to come. You can see the energy and the passion for the game. It’s very fulfilling to be part of the whole process and to imagine where it can go from here.”
One unplanned benefit to Ice in Paradise completing its two-decade quest to open its doors is that it comes at a time when the rink in Oxnard is closing. Players in that area have a handful of options for nearby rinks, and some are choosing to play in Goleta.
It would be hard to argue that hockey in the Santa Barbara area has a bright future, and it has the potential to transform an area that has long had a quiet passion for the sport into a hockey hotbed. In March, Norton’s team in top level of the Santa Barbara Adult Hockey League won the league’s first championship playing in the arena that the 27-year-old had dreamed of since he could barely stand on skates. He said it was a surreal experience, and he’s bullish on of hockey in his hometown.
“It’s amazing,” Norton said. “Every day, I wake up with a big smile on my face and it stays with me until I go to bed at night. You can see the passion in the kids that I work with every day, and it brings me back to the excitement I had for the sport as that young kid wanting a place to play.”
— Greg Ball