When the Rhinelander Ice Association wanted to build an ice arena nearly three decades ago, it was community support that made it possible. Today, the association and its arena are giving back to the community not only by providing opportunities to area youths and other skaters, but through the economic impact it has on Rhinelander as a whole.
“We rely a lot on the community,” Rink Manager Brett Aylesworth said. “We needed the community when we wanted to have an indoor ice rink and we still need the community today.”
But more and more, the link between the community and the ice arena is becoming a two way street.
“From November to March there is usually something going on every weekend,” Aylesworth said.
The ice arena hosts youth hockey tournaments, adult hockey tournaments and figure skating competitions. And each of those events is more than one night which means families staying over night at hotels, eating at area restaurants and visiting local shops.
“We recently hosted a 14-team Peewee tournament with 13-14 players per team, that is 182 families staying at hotels,” Aylesworth said.
Those families also have to eat but that impact is a little bit harder to quantify according to Aylesworth.
“The impact on the restaurant’s is a little harder to come up with,” he said. “But hotel rooms, we know those a little bit more. Every year, the number of hotel rooms used by hockey families is more than 1,000. This year we are on pace to have our best year yet with more than 1,100 hotel rooms.”
Teams come from as far away as Illinois to compete in the tournaments but Aylesworth said it is not just the competition that makes Rhinelander an attractive place to visit.
“We have been very fortunate to have hotels that welcome hockey players,” he said. “That is not the case everywhere you go. Some places don’t allow hockey teams to stay there or they put restrictions on them. Our hotels are very welcoming.”
Another unique appeal to Rhinelander is the motorized Hodag in the ice arena. Spearheaded by Dr. Harry Skye, the Hodag was installed in the early 2000s in the arena. Complete with flashing lights, the Hodag is primarily used for celebration when the Rhinelander High School hockey teams score a goal. But the Hodag is also a favorite of the youth participants when they skate at tournaments here.
“It is always the biggest question we get during tournaments is when are we going to bring the Hodag out,” Aylesworth said. “We usually bring it out once per tournament and the kids love it.”
While the ice arena is busy in the winter months, a growing number of summer events has the facility becoming a year-round attraction.
“We host a circus, we have had different concerts here, a gun show and the roller derby team has had a couple of bouts here,” Aylesworth said.
One large event last year was such a success that it will return this summer.
“Last year, Nicolet College had a career fair here,” Aylesworth said. “About 700 to 800 students came through, meeting with different vendors.”
Aylesworth said he can see the arena hosting more events like the career fair.
“It is a great space for trade show,” he said. “It is a large area if someone would want to come in and set up.”
While the future looks bright for the ice arena, Aylesworth said it has been the partnership with the community that has made it all possible.
“You look around this building and you see the hundreds of signs of community supporters,” he said. “It just shows how much this place means to the community and we are happy to be able to give some of that back.”