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Messier helps bring huge Ice Center to NYC

Sunday, 01.26.2014 / 3:00 AM
Davis Harper  - NHL.com Staff Writer

On Dec. 10, 2013, the New York City Council approved plans for the Kingsbridge National Ice Center (KNIC) to occupy the Kingsbridge Armory space in the Bronx. The complex, as proposed, will be, upon completion in 2017, the world's largest indoor ice center. The nearly unanimous vote capped three years of efforts by KNIC Partners, led by Kevin Parker, former global head of asset management at Deutsche Bank, and CEO Mark Messier. The success of the venture, the "alignment of the planets and stars" as Parker calls it, was the culmination of thousands of hours of research and planning. It also involved a healthy dose of community cooperation and, curiously, a bus trip to Philadelphia.

Kevin Parker had an ice problem.

A hockey dad living in the middle of New York City, Parker's two boys, then 8 and 10, had graduated from Pee Wee hockey and were in search of a stiffer challenge. So the Parkers searched, and searched, eventually only finding competitive hockey some 45 miles from their home, traveling to Mennen Arena in Morristown, N.J., and Stamford Twin Rinks in Stamford, Conn. The shorter of those two trips, to Stamford, is 34 miles from midtown Manhattan.

"That just made the situation seem even crazier to me, that if you love hockey and want to play hockey growing up in New York City, you have to travel 35 or 45 miles to go play," Parker said. "So I asked the question: 'Why are there no ice sports? No ice surfaces in New York City?'"

It's a common question among hockey families, school programs and city leagues, and especially pertinent this week. How, in a city that will host two 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series games featuring the three metro-area NHL teams during the next week, can there be almost no year-round ice to be found?

Parker, a banker with an expertise in what's known as impact investing, set out to solve the problem. He hired Stephan Butler, a civil engineer fresh off an MBA from Columbia University, to conduct research on possible solutions.

Butler was astonished by what he found.

In the United States, there is one year-round, indoor ice surface for every 100,000 people. In places like the greater Minneapolis area, there are twice as many rinks. As a state, New York is well stocked with ice sheets. But in New York City, the nation's most populous urban area, there are seven year-round sheets for a city of 8.2 million people. That's one ice sheet for almost every 1.2 million people. Among those seven, some, including the Aviator Sports and Events Center, located on the southeast tip of Brooklyn, are inaccessible to many residents.

"We're like the hole of the doughnut," Butler said.

With the proof New York City is ruefully underserved when it comes to ice sports, Parker's ambitions grew, as did the team assembled to chase those ambitions. Mark Messier, a friend of Parker's from when they served together on the board of the New York Police & Fire Widows' and Children's Benefit's Fund, joined the effort.

With Messier, the makeshift operation found a face. An area legend since he captained the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years in 1994, the Hockey Hall of Fame member lent legitimacy and visibility to the project.

For Messier, the project was a chance to finally build on the momentum generated by that Stanley Cup victory two decades earlier.

"In '94, when we won the Stanley Cup, we inspired a lot of people, a lot who weren't necessarily hockey fans," Messier said. "The story that was unfolding was bigger than hockey, so it really transformed the game. We inspired a new generation of kids to maybe try the sport, only to find out it was not easy to play ice hockey because of the lack of facilities.

"Years later, here with an opportunity to do something on an incredibly large scale to genuinely impact the lives of many kids in this area, it was too good and too important of an opportunity to pass up."

The city's dearth of ice is not a modern problem. Veteran hockey broadcaster and lifelong New Yorker Stan Fischler recalled a childhood when there was "precious little ice." In the late-1950s, Fischler went to urban planner extraordinaire Robert Moses to propose hockey in Central Park's seasonal Wollman Rink.

"I was treated as if I'd gone in there saying, 'How would you like me to plant a bomb underneath the Central Park Zoo?'" Fischler said. "They just didn't want to have anything to do with hockey."

Today, Wollman Rink has the largest Learn to Skate program in the nation. The city has responded to the thirst for ice with four new seasonal rinks this winter, but due to the volatile weather conditions (it was 65 degrees for three days in mid-December, for example) outdoor ice can be spotty.

"There are a lot of seasonals here," Butler said. "But seasonals, mostly outdoor, everything affects the ice. Snow affects it, rain affects it, ice affects it. The start of the season is meh, the end of the season is meh."

With Messier and Sarah Hughes, the Olympic gold medalist figure skater, as spokespeople, and an indoor ice center as the mission, Parker, Butler and two other co-founders, John Nolan and Jonathan Richter, set out to find a suitable location.

A BRONX TALE

About 200 blocks north of Madison Square Garden, the centerpiece of midtown Manhattan and home of the Rangers, sits another immense and historic New York structure.

The Kingsbridge Armory occupies an entire city block in the northwest region of the Bronx, in the Kingsbridge Heights neighborhood. The structure itself is breathtaking, a feat of military excess, which when active was thought to be the world's largest armory.

John Neary, who volunteers on the business development side for Parker's team, grew up blocks from there. He recalls the active armory being the stuff of fantasy.

"For a little boy growing up playing with toy soldiers, it was like watching your heroes in real life in the army trucks coming out of the armory," Neary said.

The 795,000-square-foot structure has sat empty since 1994, save for the occasional rodeo, boat show or movie shoot. The 258th Field Artillery departed, leaving the armory in a state of mild disrepair. The only occupants are trucks licensed by the city's Graffiti-Free NYC program, which when parked in the armory look like a cluster of seagulls perched on a vast ocean.

A number of prospective tenants have pursued the armory since 1994, including a sports/retail complex, a series of schools, and a shopping mall.

The mall proposal, which reached a city council vote in 2010, was most notable as one of the few failed redevelopment projects of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's tenure. It failed, in large part, due to a vocal and passionate group of community leaders known as the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance (KARA). The coalition refused to back the project after the bidder, the Related Companies, would not agree to pay employees what was thought to be a living wage.

"I don't care who was going to come in or who was getting excited about [the mall], it wasn't going to bring what we needed," recalls the Rev. Que English, senior pastor at Bronx Christian Fellowship and a member of the alliance. "We don't need to build consumerism; we need to build economic sustainability in our community."

With KARA defending the armory, many developers saw the property as radioactive. Butler and Parker, however, saw an opportunity.

"When we started looking at what was available, we saw some properties, but every one of them there was a reason they weren't ideal," Butler said. "It wasn't near mass transit, wasn't near residences, and so on. Then the [New York Economic Develop Corporation] told us about this property up in the Bronx."

The group anticipated finding a space to fit two to four ice sheets. When Butler took the subway to the Kingsbridge Road station and stepped into the armory, he immediately calculated room to fit five rinks on the floor. When another associate later suggested building up, the outlay quickly became nine rinks.

It was at that moment, said Messier, that the vision supersized. The proposed ice center would now, if it cleared all hurdles, be the largest of its kind in the world.

"Go big or go home," Parker said of his group's reaction. "What better place in the world to build the largest ice sports center than in New York City?"

The demographics of the area presented the first hurdle. The Bronx is unique among the city's five boroughs in that it has a Hispanic majority, 53.5 percent of the population. Non-Hispanic blacks make up another 30.8 percent. The U.S. Census considers the Bronx to be the most diverse area in the country.

"Ice is not the first thing you think about when you look at the demographics of the Bronx," said Alice McIntosh, a Bronx teacher and lead negotiator from KARA. "We are a community of black and Latino people. We're not necessarily skaters, we're not necessarily ice-sports fans."

Yet everyone involved in the project said negotiations always centered on a mutually beneficial partnership between the proposed center and the community.

"We had to sell them on that fact," Messier said. "The only way to do that is to get to know each other and gain the trust. … We know it's not our armory. It's theirs. We have to be respectful of that."

To convince the community, Parker and his partners scheduled a bus trip to the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation in Philadelphia, a program using hockey to build character and academic skills for high-risk, inner-city boys and girls from the area. The program was founded by Ed Snider, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers.

The project's backers wanted to replicate some of the foundation's success at bringing hockey to inner-city communities. The community leaders needed proof that an ice complex could create real socioeconomic change.

So it happened that this quintessentially New York tale of rebirth and rejuvenation hinged on a bus trip to the City of Brotherly Love.

BUILDING ON A SOLID FOUNDATION

With nearly 10,000 success stories and another 3,000 writing their own within the program, the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation is the nation's pre-eminent organization working to bring the sport and the values it celebrates to underserved, inner-city students.

The program was implemented by Snider in 2005 and operates out of five rinks around the city. Through unique partnerships with the city and its parks department, the program took over struggling public rinks and dedicated foundation funds to their upkeep.

"People assume it's a hockey program," CEO Scott Tharp said. "No, hockey's really just our hook to gain and hold our youngsters to teach them much greater life lessons that will produce our citizens of tomorrow."

Tharp backs up his assertion with hard data. When the program started, 70 percent of the personnel were dedicated to hockey; now, academic aides and tutors outnumber hockey personnel 4-to-1. About 1,900 children are enrolled in the After School Excellence program, and they must submit a report card and attendance record before they are handed skates and a stick.

McIntosh, who specializes in students with disabilities at Mott Hall Charter School in the Bronx, said he was blown away by the commitment to academics.

"There was nothing that was going to keep [the kids] from coming in every single day," McIntosh said. "Doing what they need to do in school, keeping those grades up, whatever, because they didn't want anything to keep them from that ice. That was what really struck me."

The comparisons between greater Philadelphia and the Bronx were undeniable, especially in terms of graduation rates. Philadelphia graduates 64 percent of its students; the Bronx reports a 65.5 percent graduation rate. During the past three years, the Ed Snider Foundation graduated 100 percent of its participants, with 83 percent moving on to post-secondary education.

Parker said that at one point during the trip, New York City council member Fernando Cabrera, who represents the armory's 14th District, turned to him and said, "You shouldn't have brought us down here. You set the bar too high."

Upon returning to New York, the push continued. By McIntosh's count, the group now known as KNIC Partners made about 100 trips to the Bronx for town hall meetings, candlelight prayer groups, street-side vigils, and more.

"Every single thing we asked them to come to, they came," McIntosh said. "Whether it was a meeting of 150 people or sitting around a table with 10 people, they came, they brought the team."

Messier said the community pride on display reminded him why he felt such a strong connection to the city during his seven seasons with the Rangers after a decorated career with the Edmonton Oilers.

"There's a lot of passion in the Bronx," Messier said. "The people are very protective of their neighborhood, they're proud of the neighborhood; they want a future for their children."

The two sides came together to sign a Community Benefits Agreement. Where previous projects stalled, the ice center flourished. The developers agreed to nearly all major community requests, including a living wage, local procurement of goods and services, and local hiring and training. The group went further, contributing $8 million toward a 50,000-square-foot space within the armory for the community to build out any way it wishes. Another $1 million per year will go to free ice time, coaching, and equipment rental.

"The idea of us going and building out Kingsbridge and putting a moat around the place to keep people from the Bronx out was never going to work," Parker said.

He said he knew if KNIC Partners were to eventually sign the 99-year lease, it would need to "become part of the fabric of that community. That notion guided us in everything."

BOROUGH BRACES FOR IMPACT

The city council approved the Kingsbridge National Ice Center on Dec. 10, 2013, with the $320 million project to be funded entirely through private investment. According to the developers, at least 260 permanent jobs and 890 construction jobs will be created in a county plagued by unemployment. What one journalist once called "an enduring symbol of the Bronx's struggles" will be transformed into a symbol of a community rejuvenated, project and neighborhood leaders hope.

"It's attracted the dreams and aspirations of lots of different people in all different parts of society," Parker said. "People want to see this thing happen."

At P&K's Grille, a mile west of the armory, memorabilia from the Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup victory dots the walls. A framed Messier jersey serves as the centerpiece of the dining room. After the Captain's first visit to the restaurant -- he appears often to talk possible partnerships with local schools and community groups -- co-owner Joe Kowalczyk named a burger after his favorite NHL player, topped with Canadian bacon.

"When I found out Mark was going to be involved, well, he's my hero," Kowalczyk said. "It's going to be a great venue, with New York being a hockey town. A lot of kids from the inner city that have never been exposed to hockey, they're going to enjoy it. It's going to be a win-win for everybody."

Fordham Preparatory School is one of a dozen or so schools and local groups which have already signed non-binding letters of intent to use the ice center. The all-male Jesuit school located on the Rose Hill campus of Fordham University fields junior varsity and varsity hockey teams, but the closest ice can sometimes be an hour away. Rye Playland, the home of the Rams for nearly 40 years before it was damaged by Hurricane Sandy, is a 40-minute drive from the school.

"It's very difficult for us to get ice at reasonable hours and reasonable rates," said Father Christopher Devron S.J., president of Fordham Prep. "There's a scarcity of it, and our team ends up practicing late at night."

Beyond the proximity, Devron said he likes how the KNIC project aligns with the mission of Fordham Prep, as a Jesuit school, to produce students who are men for others. Since each of the 936 young men enrolled at Fordham Prep must complete a service requirement in the neighborhood prior to graduation, the ice center will provide another outlet for that service.

"We see the presence of KNIC as a vehicle by which our kids could reach out to the neighborhood," Devron said. "There's going to be a lot of community organizations that are going to make use of this facility, so our boys could partner with them to do service in the community."

For English, there's no question of the ice center's impact.

"This, while it's not the entire answer to what we're dealing with, it is absolutely the pivotal point, the launching pad to the revitalization to the Bronx," English said. "It is like the pivotal moment, turning the corner from barrenness to fruitfulness."

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