Coming through one door, two people in shorts, adjusting their sunglasses to the afternoon glare and adjusting their temperatures from the chill inside. Outside another door, a waist-high snowbank, defiant against the sunlight, the ice shavings left by a Zamboni.
It is the Jaycee Community Building, a venue as generic and functional as khaki trousers, and it’s in the middle of a unique transformation. While it may be too much hyperbole to call it a “miracle on ice,” the ingenuity and creativity involved solved a puzzle for the City of Huntsville and the management of the Wilcoxon Ice Complex.
Huntsville needs ice. And not just for sweet tea. The tradition of ice sports in this community dates back more than 60 years, and the growth is almost exponential with each new generation, whether it be ice skating, hockey leagues or the new kid in town, curling.
When the “Iceplex” was closed for long-needed renovations, a substitute was needed. Just across the way at John Hunt Park was the Jaycee Building, with its concrete floors, high ceilings – and high potential. Steve Clough, the senior facility manager of the Iceplex, thought all along it could serve as a stopgap measure. Then City Administrator John Hamilton seconded the motion, and the “Mini-plex” was born.
It will come as no surprise that coronavirus complicated everything. It delayed the opening of the Mini-plex. But as restrictions eased, it began to gradually welcome skaters inside.
The temporary rink is 50 feet by 100 feet, compared with the 85 x 200 of a regulation hockey rink. But it serves its purpose. Coupled with the sheet of ice at the Von Braun Center’s Propst Arena, teams and skaters can find ice time throughout the summer.
The Mini-plex is kept groomed by a full-sized Zamboni and the concrete floor was the perfect foundation for the ice and the cooling system. Clough acquired a heating unit for the water; remember, despite logic to the contrary, hot water makes better ice than cold water.
The Jaycee building has 12,000 feet of meeting space, and there is leftover space in the west end of the building for skate rental, benches, etc. Clough and his staff have established office space in the front part of the building. Visitors are met by a staff member who does a temperature check with an infrared thermometer before allowing entrance – and where you’re quickly chilled from the high 80s outside to the need-a-sweater interior.
Benton Wilcoxon opened his Ice Palace in 1959, at 402 Governors Drive, with the building still standing behind the new Chik-Fil-A. He eventually donated his building to the city in 1986, then a group of citizens led the drive for the current Iceplex, with its two sheets of ice, on Leeman Ferry. It was a no-brainer when it came to the name they’d put on the side of the building when it opened in 1991.
Alas, the Iceplex was operating with mostly original equipment, like ice-making compressors, heating and air systems, etc. Additionally, new locker rooms and other amenities were needed to better serve the clientele and to be more competitive in attracting travel tournaments and competitions. While Phase I of the renovation could be accomplished without a shutdown, Phase II required a total shutdown in mid-March until September.
Irony there: Of all things shut down in mid-March 2020, the Iceplex may have been the only venue in the city already planning to do so.
Then along came the imaginative second plan, the Mini-plex that keeps Huntsville on ice.