WESTERVILLE - The rink now anchored in the middle of Alum Creek Park South is a new option for those looking to spend a couple hours playing hockey, even when it's too hot for ice.
It's also a "dream come true" for Lisa and Jim Knox, the Westerville residents who spearheaded the rink's creation to help memorialize their son, Thomas Knox, who died in his sleep in December 2015 - after scoring two goals in a local tournament for St. Charles Prep's JV team.
After two years of fundraising and planning, the Knox family's $250,000 new rink officially opened to the public June 30, on a scorching-hot day that saw nearly 500 children pick up a hockey stick and familiarize themselves with the sport Thomas loved.
"[This] is in memory of our son, Thomas, whose passion was none other than hockey," said Lisa Knox, who cut the ribbon to officially dedicate the rink along with Jim Knox and representatives of the Blue Jackets, Blue Jackets Foundation, City of Westerville and Westerville Parks and Recreation.
Video: Family dedicates hockey rink in loving memory of son
Randy Auler, director of Westerville Parks and Recreation, also held shears in his hands for the ceremony. Smiling despite the sweltering heat, he gladly snipped the ribbon after two years helping the Knox family make their dream a reality.
"I really felt like there was a need, and that need needed to be fulfilled," Auler said. "This rink and the programming we're going to do and the collaborations we've established are going to expose the sport of hockey to so many kids and so many parents. It's really about bringing people together, growing the sport, and having fun."
Once Jim and Lisa set their focus on the idea of bringing the rink to life, they began to raise funds. In fact, they led the charge to raise the money needed to complete the project, even contributing a significant amount themselves.
The greater Columbus community also lent a financial hand.
"This rink was really a culmination of a partnership with the City of Westerville, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the [McConnell Foundation], and really the love and support of so many family members and friends that have been lifting us up since Thomas passed away," Lisa said.
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The grand opening garnered a lot of interest, with a crowd of people on hand to check things out, but programming will continue at the rink throughout the coming months - using equipment and instruction provided by the Blue Jackets and supplemented by Westerville Parks and Recreation.
"We have a continuous skills-to-drills program that will go on for 6 weeks, and so far we have over 150 kids enrolled in that," Auler said. "Our dream is to have hockey out here, exposing people to the sport of hockey, remove barriers, and just get people playing."
After the ribbon-cutting and a ceremonial puck-drop, a group of Thomas Knox's teammates from St. Charles played a short exhibition game, showing younger kids watching how much fun they could have there.
When that game ended, the rink was divided up and 100 children flooded the blue acrylic surface with their new hockey gear to begin the day's first clinic.
"Hockey has a powerful platform to provide life skills for kids," said Andee Boiman, the Blue Jackets' director of fan development and community outreach. "We're here today providing free sticks and free instruction to all the kids. Through our partnership with Westerville Parks and Recreation, we're able to offer nearly 500 kids the opportunity to try out something that perhaps they haven't tried out before, and now that they've got this great rink in their community, they'll be more comfortable to come out and use some of the skills they're learning today."
Now that it's operational, the new rink is recognized as an official "Street Jackets" location, where the Blue Jackets will uphold a partnership with Westerville Parks and Recreation to provide equipment and coaching instruction for future programs hosted there.
The Jackets' "Learn to Play" street hockey clinics, for instance, begin in July.
"The Columbus Blue Jackets are a great community partner for Columbus, and we want to help remove barriers of entry for the game," Boiman said.
Aside from extensive programming, the Knox family hopes to add another feature to the rink with additional fundraising. They're calling it "Phase II" - and its centerpiece will be an overhead structure to provide shade, protection from the weather and lighting.
"This is an incredible legacy project for the city of Westerville," Boiman said. "The hockey community is a very close community and very close to one another, which is what makes our sport so great. Individuals who don't know each other will always come together to support a great sport like hockey."
That was certainly the case on the rink's first official day. Hundreds gathered to celebrate Thomas Knox's life, support his parents and soak in the sunshine while doing something the park's namesake loved.
"We miss him terribly," Jim Knox said. "We would trade everything here to have him back …"
Unable to make that happen, they did everything they could to keep his memory alive.
"That deep, dark valley we were in, this offers a light to shine through that," said Lisa Knox, capping a day she and Jim had envisioned for months. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected something like this. I think that just goes to show the love and support of this community."