It’s a Sunday afternoon in the girls’ locker room at Chelsea’s Arctic Coliseum. “Are we gonna win?” one girl yells. “Yeah!” the others yell back through their face masks. The girls shoulder-bump one another and shout out their nicknames.
Toughness matters in hockey–and the girls on the Chelsea Lightning know it. Today the fourteen-and-under team will face a St. Clair Shores team that beat them 6-1 the day before in an away game. But now they’re on home ice, and they’re ready to play hard.
Head coaches Neal Boudette and Rick Wesche, who each have daughters on the team, formed the Lightning this year–the first girls’ team at the Coliseum in four years. Boudette, who lives in Ann Arbor, says their daughters had been miserable playing for a “screamer” coach in the Ann Arbor Amateur Hockey Association, so he and Wesche, of Saline, decided to start fresh in Chelsea.
The two-rink Arctic Coliseum has welcomed transplants from Ann Arbor and surrounding areas–and a loyal following of locals–since it opened in 2000. Thirty men’s league teams, seventeen Chelsea house and travel youth hockey teams, a figure skating club, learn-to-skate and learn-to-play-hockey programs–and Chelsea, Saline, and Pinckney’s high school teams–all share Coliseum ice.
Boudette–who also plays men’s masters league hockey at the Coliseum and has a younger daughter who continues to play at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube–says Chelsea’s arena is a “clean, inviting, and comfortable” place to play. He also says its hockey association is straightforward and easy to work with compared with Ann Arbor’s “more political” environment. (The Ann Arbor Amateur Hockey Association is recovering from a nearly $1 million embezzlement by its former bookkeeper, Kimberly Kay Knight of Chelsea.)
The move gave Boudette and Wesche the chance to shape the Lightning, and Coliseum general manager Don Wright–who wants to see the Chelsea girls’ program expand further–helped them reduce costs by simplifying the training regimen. And he gave them ice time in the late afternoons and early evenings, instead of the crack-of-dawn slots common at the crowded Cube.
Boudette sent out hundreds of emails to prospective players and held free open skates–featuring pop music and soccer on ice–to draw girls to the arena. Two sisters came over from the Cube. Another pair of sisters came from Canton. Eventually, the coaches recruited fifteen girls, some of them novices.
Boudette has partnered with the U-M women’s hockey club team. With encouragement from the collegians and a focus on “hard work and continuous improvement,” Boudette hopes to build a team of strong competitors, even though the Lightning were winless in the early going.
But they don’t give up. At the start of the third and final period, the Lightning is losing 7-0, but coach Boudette–who’s pacing on top of a bench–keeps encouraging his team. “OK, girls, they got five goals the first period and two the second–let’s win the third!” The girls raise their sticks and yell, “One, two, three…Bolt!”
In the last period, they still don’t score but hold off any further goals by the oppostion. Boudette deems the improvement from one period to the next a huge success.
In the locker room after the game, the girls line the bench for their coach’s pep talk. “We’re gonna win the next one!” he tells them.
Bringing ice to Chelsea was the idea of John Stansik, owner of Plymouth’s Arctic Pond and Canton’s Arctic Edge arenas. At the time, Jeff Daniels’ son skated out of the Arctic Pond, and when Daniels learned of Stansik’s interest, he let him know that his father, Bob, was seeking to sell land behind his Chelsea Lumber property.
Chelsea High School club hockey coach Don Wright heard about the proposed arena and told Stansik he’d like to have ice time and a locker room for his team. Stansik agreed–and offered Wright the job of Coliseum general manager. When the arena opened, hockey became a varsity sport at Chelsea High. Wright and a group of Chelsea residents, including Jeff Daniels, also formed the Chelsea Hockey Association, which oversees all the Coliseum’s youth hockey programs and teams.
In 2005, Stansik sold the Coliseum to Karl Christen of Milford. Last year, Christen added the Arctic Breakaway restaurant and bar upstairs, featuring bird’s-eye views of both rinks, plus sports on big-screen TVs.
In the lobby between the twin rinks, moms and dads congregate while siblings of skaters play air hockey and video games in an arcade. The doors keep swinging open, bringing in hockey players of all ages lugging huge duffel bags over their shoulders. Inside the rinks, the smell of fresh ice beckons.
The Coliseum hosts hockey tournaments that bring players from as far as Dallas and a four-day summer camp that attracts top high school players and National Hockey League scouts.
“We are so spoiled,” says Chelsea resident Bill Doyle, as players smash into the boards inches from where he’s watching his son, a senior at Chelsea, play a preseason game against Dexter. “To have something of this caliber in a town our size is really something.”
Doyle’s sixth-grade son plays on Chelsea’s peewee house team. Both his kids started in the arena’s learn-to-play program. The program, for ages three to fifteen, has sixty participants this year, its largest number ever. The association loans out equipment, so families can afford to have kids sample hockey.
Doyle himself played in a league with other hockey dads at the Coliseum until his kids’ schedule got too busy. For many at the arena, hockey is a family affair–and a social outlet.
“Everybody seems to know everybody at games,” says Coliseum manager Wright, whose Chelsea High team has been ranked in the state’s top ten for several years. “Hockey here has a great fan base.”
At the Chelsea-Dexter game, teenage girls in their jeans and UGG boots walk to the bleachers, cupping hot chocolates from the snack bar. Devoted parents huddle together in the stands. And people line the restaurant windows upstairs to watch the action with their drinks and food.
An 8 p.m. Wednesday men’s masters league game between Cliff Keen Athletic and Tidy Enterprises ends in a 4-4 tie. That means Cliff Keen remains undefeated–a relief to its goalie, fifty-seven-year-old Jim LaPointe of Ann Arbor. Hockey is “a passion that gets into your blood,” says LaPointe, who’s been playing since age four and tended goal for Michigan State. He peels off his jersey and chest pads, then, drenched in sweat, walks down the hallway to join his team for a beer in the locker room.
“It’s become a guys’ night out,” says fifty-two-year-old Derrick Oxender, president of Victory Lane Quick Oil Change and one of the league’s original members. Oxender has sponsored a master’s team for ten years and is now sponsoring another team in a new over-fifty men’s platinum league.
More than a hundred men play in the over-forty masters league. Doctors, lawyers, executives, schoolteachers, and farmers, they drive from as far as Downriver Detroit to Chelsea each Wednesday night to get their hockey fix. Their league left the Cube for better ice time when the Coliseum opened and is one of the arena’s biggest supporters, says Wright.
“When it got to the point when some of our games were starting at midnight, we knew something had to change,” says Bill Wells of Chelsea, former league president. The group polled its members, and more than 90 percent voted to move to Chelsea, even though it was a longer drive for most. Wright says the Coliseum tries to honor ice-time preferences consistently from year to year.
Oxender says he prefers Chelsea not just for the better ice times but because it’s more “social and friendly” than the Cube, which he says is “isolating.” The Cube’s two NHL-size and one Olympic-size rink and cavernous facility dwarf the smaller Coliseum. But the easygoing atmosphere at Chelsea’s hometown rink makes it a favorite for many.
Before the Breakaway opened, the league would tailgate under a tent in the Coliseum parking lot after games. Now Oxender says the teams hang out in the restaurant instead, watching other masters games and talking “about how slow the other guys are.”
Lynley Weston’s family also moved their drop-in hockey group to the Coliseum from the Cube for a better ice time. In two blond braids and full hockey gear, twenty-six-year-old Weston waits to take the ice on the north rink on a Saturday night. She’s the only girl in a group of twenty guys and has never played organized hockey in her life–but her father and brother play, and she drives out from Royal Oak “just for the fun of it.”
In the south rink on Saturday evening, it’s “Back to School” DJ Night, and colorful laser lights flash as kids from Chelsea, Dexter, and Manchester schools circle the rink to pop music. A few tots struggle to find their footing on walkers with wheels amidst speed-loving hockey players and graceful figure skaters.
Chelsea resident Amy Downer says hockey players and figure skaters have the same thirst for ice. “You can see it in their faces,” she says. Downer’s daughter, Maddie, thirteen, used to train up to four hours a day at the Coliseum with Gary Clark of Ypsilanti, who has coached at the national and international level for more than forty years. He coaches seventeen-year-old Chelsea resident Graham Emberton, the highest-ranked competitive skater in town.
Clark, who coaches at many arenas, was figure skating director at the Coliseum in 2005 and 2006. The Coliseum’s program is still in its infancy, he says, adding that current figure skating director Carol Kletzka is trying to create a “comfortable atmosphere” where all skaters, beginning or advanced, can accomplish their goals.
Maddie Downer competed through the state level until several years ago, when the time commitment became too great. Now she’s a junior coach at the Coliseum, helping other young skaters in exchange for free ice time. “The beauty of the Arctic is that it makes it possible for someone like Maddie to have her passion and still have her life,” says Amy Downer.
The nineteen girls on the Coliseum Comets synchronized skating team share that same passion. Most of them skate for fun and the handful of team competitions and shows a year. Half a dozen others also take private lessons here and enter individual competitions statewide.
Michael Holt, father of Comets skater Madison, twelve, just plunked down $1,000 for custom-fitted skates for his daughter. The Manchester family also pays about $120 per competition and extra bucks for private lessons, which can run $35-$60 an hour. It’s all worth it, he says, as he watches his daughter skate laps at a recent practice. She whizzes by him, pink-faced and grinning. “It’s her sport, it’s her exercise, it’s her everything,” he says.
This article has been edited since it originally appeared in the Winter 2009 Community Observer. The affiliation of the “screamer” coach has been clarified.”