Three kids scramble up and down the ice with names like “Crosby” on their jerseys, as they blast pucks into open nets. On an ice sheet two-thirds the size of a hockey arena, even seven-year-olds glide like seasoned pros.
Greater Victoria’s only private ice sheet and training facility can give young hockey players an edge in this hockey-crazy town, but it came close to going bankrupt less than two years after opening. And it was a silent investor – who had little hockey experience and even less business experience – who was the proverbial last man riding the Zamboni.
In January 2011, the region’s first new ice sheet in years opened in a warehouse in Colwood as Puckmasters, a hockey training facility in a region with more hockey players than ice time. At the time, Langford’s Westhills Arena had yet to open, and the franchise seemed like safe bet for Geoff Carrow.
Indeed, hockey players young and old flocked to the polyethylene synthetic ice treadmill and played fast three on three games in the scaled down arena. Juan de Fuca Minor Hockey planned to train its youngest players at Puckmasters to free up premium ice time at the public West Shore rinks.
But the relationship between the three Victoria owners and the Puckmasters company soured quickly, and the Wilfert Road facility rebranded as the Island Centre of Excellence (ICE) hockey and fitness studio in February 2012. The other owners asked Carrow to take the reins, and he agreed.
“I had never run a business and didn’t know hockey. I was really an investor,” he said. The 43-year-old spent most of his adult life working in search and rescue for Parks Canada, and had always dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur. He had that dream thrust upon him.
“We had to get our reputation back after Puckmasters shut down. We brought in ICE, turned it into a different business, and for a year I called clients and told them we’d honour programs they’d purchased through Puckmasters,” he said. “We lost a ton of money, but built up goodwill. It really is a community (on the West Shore). Your reputation is paramount.”
Free of the franchise model, the facility was still bleeding cash through 2012, and ICE lacked a coherent business strategy.
Carrow found himself having to bring in at least $30,000 per month to pay rent, maintain the ice and pay staff, but the facility’s cash flow was half of that. He sold assets like the ice treadmill and borrowed money from his parents to keep the place afloat.
“A coach that leased the space couldn’t pay his bills. That’s what nearly killed this place a year ago,” Carrow said. “But we never had to shut down. We always found a way to pay. Last year we paid all our debts and built a solid program.”
Fortunately, Carrow was accepted on to the Victoria-based reality show The Hard Way, where four mentors help revamp struggling businesses. They helped ICE devise a business plan focused on training young players using professional coaches within specialized programs.
“I worked hard with the mentors, worked on the reputation and keeping the place alive. The idea was to focus on little kids. In the past they tried to make this an elite facility, but there’s not that many (elites) and they can only pay so much,” Carrow said. “We shifted to 10 or 12 and under, and researched the hockey training model used in Scandinavia — six practices to every game, very heavy training and in smaller rinks.”
ICE turned the corner in 2013 paid its debts and became a solvent business, Carrow said, enough so he can pay himself and 11 part and full time employees. A large part of that success come through Trent Brandvold, 37, the head coach of hockey development for ICE.
JDF minor hockey and the Pacific Coast Hockey Academy rent ice time at ICE, but it’s Brandvold’s specialty training programs – such as the Top D Man defence skills and Sniper School puck shooting – that keep the facility alive.
“I’m sitting in the office wondering what I’m going to do, and Trent walked in,” Carrow said. “He heard we’d split from Puckmasters and said, ‘I’m your guy.’ We’re building the business around Trent and the facility. He eats and breathes hockey, and is great with the kids.”
The one-time Salmon Kings defenceman who played in Texas for the Central Hockey League, Brandvold now divides his time between ICE, coaching with the Peninsula Panthers, and the spring league Island Monarchs 2004 squad.
“I saw the opportunity here. This space has a lot to offer,” he said. “Hockey and conditioning go hand in hand. If you are peewee or bantam or junior A, conditioning is a huge part to keep up.”
The two-thirds size arena is ideal for young players, Brandvold said, as it allows all kids far more time on the puck than on a regulation-sized rink. There are plenty of skills to learn in hockey, but with kids, he focuses on the fundamentals of skating and shooting.
“It’s critical to have instruction, especially at a young age. Every kid wants to play in the NHL, but the reality is a lot of kids don’t get the opportunity to develop their skills,” Brandvold said.
“The (smaller rink) definitely has advantages for younger players. Every player feels a part of the game. On a big sheet a lot of them can’t touch the puck, especially if there is a gap in talent. Kids here have a lot of fun, we develop skills in a way that is fun.
“I played hockey for eight years, but have been part of the game for 30 years. I love hockey and doing what I do. It’s exciting to make players better.”