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by Don Schwartz / Arizona Coyotes
Perhaps no other place in the Valley has witnessed the growth of hockey quite like the Alltel Ice Den in Scottsdale. This venerable two-sheet facility celebrated its 10th anniversary on Oct. 18 with fanfare for all and memories for those who have skated on its ice throughout the past decade.

Built in 1998 to house the Coyotes’ team and organizational functions, the Ice Den now hosts a multitude of recreational ice sports, while continuing to serve as a practice facility for the Valley's NHL franchise. It’s a unique facility that houses everything from initiation programs to major youth travel teams, collegiate competition to professional practices and future figure skaters to former Olympic champions.

“We were basically a one-dimensional facility when we first opened,” said Mike O’Hearn, president of Coyotes Ice, the Ice Den’s corporate parent. “We were just the skating and hockey. Since then we've opened up a bank in here, we've got a Peter Piper Pizza, we've got a Mountainside Fitness, we've got the Coyotes here, we've got the Phoenix Roadrunners here, plus the ASU program and the P.F. Chang's program. And, our skating programs are now nationally and internationally acclaimed."

The Ice Den took time to honor its history with an open house, complete with everything that’s made the facility a favorite with families, including a public skate, youth hockey competition, a visit from Howler and plenty of birthday cake.

For parents such as Matt Middendorf of Scottsdale, the event not only marked a milestone for the Ice Den, but also served as a reminder of the role its rinks have played in their lives. With his young son Erik at his side – a budding star on the house Mites A team – Middendorf recalled how his oldest son – now a member of the P.F. Chang’s Under-14 team – joined the Learn to Skate program back in 1998 when the facility was in its infancy.

“When this place opened in '98 it was just amazing,” he said. “This is a great place to have birthday parties or come to skate. Peter Piper is a great place to come take your family after practice. Even my daughters have done the Learn to Skate programs here. It's been a blessing."

It’s a story O’Hearn has heard a thousand times, and one he hopes to hear a thousand more. Having moved to Phoenix with the franchise as a member of the Winnipeg Jets front-office staff, O’Hearn has had a front row seat to the explosion of ice sports in the region and the role the Ice Den has played in growing the game of hockey.

"There's no doubt that it's really helped pick up the pace,” he said. “And with the evolution of what we brought here and the other facilities that have come online, it's only been good for the kids, the community, the families and the hockey. Our hockey programs now are bigger and better than they've ever been. The levels of competition are incredibly good. These kids are coming in at two and three years old in the Learn to Skate programs and they're graduating out to junior programs. The kids who reach that level in Arizona used to leave the state to go play. Now, they're able to stay right here."

Climbing the competitive hockey ladder is young Jeremy Kozura of Scottsdale, who came to the Ice Den with his father Dennis to join in the celebration and to lace up his skates.

"We just started with Learn to Skate and then we learned to play hockey and then over the last couple of years kind of graduated into playing in the program,” Dennis Kozura said. “Now he plays in the house league, so going through the programs and having the coaches has been great."

With an eye on the past and mindful of its current success, the Ice Den’s staff has its sights squarely set on the future. With a typical daily slate of events stretching from dawn to past midnight, O’Hearn has been looking at ways to quench the desert’s thirst for ice.

“There's a distinct possibility that we're going to be able to enlarge this facility,” he added. “We've been working on that diligently for quite some time and we're hoping that we're going to be able to add another rink to the facility. The growth again in the Valley has been tremendous.”

Stride by stride with the Ice Den in this growth have been the Coyotes. It’s a connection that’s existed since Day 1, linking the Valley’s future hockey stars with those playing the game at its highest level.

“Whether it's skating or hockey, we have kids coming to the ice sports for the very first time, so it's a great opportunity for us to kind of give them that taste of it, O’Hearn said. “Obviously I'm biased, but hockey is, without question, the best live sport to watch. When the kids get hooked here and they see it live in our building and they get to see the Coyotes practice here and then get over to Glendale and watch them there, what a treat."

Photo by Norm Hall/Phoenix Coyotes.

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