For the past 15 years, a group of hockey parents and community members have organized a free hockey program at Halloran Skating Rink on the city’s west side. The program, called the Halloran Huskies, provides free equipment, ice time, coaching, and the chance to compete in hockey to Cleveland kids who otherwise might not get the chance to play at all. Although the program was interrupted by Covid, it returned last year to serve dozens of kids in the West Boulevard and Jefferson neighborhoods.
“I don’t hesitate to use the word ‘magical,’” said Nathan Noll, a hockey player and marketing manager at a cybersecurity company who coaches for the league. “These kids truly love this weird sport they didn’t even know existed. They get hooked and love it, and it becomes their identity.”
As part of Halloran Rec Center, the skating rink is a bit of a magical place, too – it’s the only public rink in the city, and anyone can skate here for free (it costs $1 to rent skates if you don’t have them). The rink underwent a $1.5 million renovation a few years ago, and as a result, the ice here sparkles like never before. Unfortunately, accessing it has been more difficult in recent years. It was closed for a while during Covid, then hours and numbers were restricted. Although it recently opened for the 2022-23 season, the hockey program is now being managed by the city, and Noll said it’s been a struggle to get it going.
A slow start
The rink opened with its annual Winter Frolic event on Friday, December 2, and the ice was supposed to be open after that. The city’s online schedule says the rink is open for open skating and other programs Monday to Friday from 12:15-7:15 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., yet it was closed on Saturday, December 3, and much of the week of December 5 due to roof leaks. Halloran’s roof, which is slated to get a $2 million rebuild in the spring, leaks water onto the ice, causing mounds of ice to build up that have to be chipped away by hand. (The Halloran rink is a hybrid rink – it’s outdoors and has no walls, but it has a roof to protect it from rain and snow.)
Other outdoor rinks, like the Rink at Wade Oval in University Circle, stay open even in warmer weather. “Once there is a solid base of ice, we can keep the Rink open even in warmer temperatures,” said Becky Voldrich, director of communications at University Circle Incorporated, noting that the rink is kept cold through use of a chiller and coolant. Voldrich noted that they do need to occasionally close the rink if there’s rain or overly warm temperatures, but they do not have a cover. The public is kept updated through an events hotline, website, and social media. UCI works with an outside vendor to do setup, ice maintenance, staffing, and take down of the rink.
Noll said while the Winter Frolic event was well attended, with several hundred kids, hot chocolate, and Santa, the city didn’t provide any information about the rec center’s hockey program. The city now manages it (previously it was run by volunteers), yet rink staff haven’t yet told families when it will start nor organized any meetings. They’re also now calling it a “skills and drills” program rather than a team and are changing the name to the Hurricanes. Noll said he doesn’t even know if he’ll be able to volunteer because rink director Maryann Fields, who is in charge of selecting the volunteers, hasn’t let him know about the status of his application that was submitted last month.
Overall, Noll said, the rink is difficult to access for outside groups, staff members are sometimes unfriendly towards volunteers, and many of the public programs that ran in past years, including learn-to-skate and the community ice show, aren’t happening this year. The end result, he said, is that many families and kids whose lives could be enriched and improved by ice skating are being kept off the ice.
“This is the only ice rink run by the city of Cleveland, and it’s insane to me that it would be so incredibly overlooked, underutilized, and mismanaged,” Noll said. “We have a network of coaches, players, and parents that have been begging to help at the rink, and they’ve been turned away. And now, while the ice is up, hockey is scheduled to start in late January with no preparation, planning, or promotion.”
The city responds
Fields was at the rink when I stopped by with Noll on Monday, December 12, but she said she wasn’t authorized to speak with the media. City spokesperson Marie Zickefoose said in response to The Land’s questions that the decision about whether or not to open the ice is based on rink conditions and weather. She also said while the city does not currently post updates online, the Bibb administration will unveil a new website in mid-2023 where recreation information will be displayed prominently. She said rec center staff regularly visit schools and libraries and work with the councilmember to post information about programs. Halloran also offers after-school meals for kids Monday-Friday and family programs during the holiday break.
Zickefoose confirmed that Halloran’s “Youth Hockey Skills and Drills” program will begin the second week of January, that it meets twice a week and is free, and that it will be led by city staff (to sign up, call 216/664-4187 or go to the rink at 3550 W. 117th St.). She also stated that the rink doesn’t have a city-sanctioned hockey league or team, merely a hockey skills and drills program. Zickefoose also said that if a youth hockey team were created, it would need to be approved by the administration and city council.
“It is important to note that we are not a hockey arena and do not have a hockey league,” commissioner of recreation Sam Gissentaner and Halloran rec center director Maryann Fields said in a statement provided by Zickefoose. “While we do offer some form of hockey programming, our focus is on year-round programs and services for the residents of the city of Cleveland.”
The city also confirmed that the ice show and learn-to-skate programs aren’t happening. “Unfortunately, we have not had the ice show the last two years,” Gissentaner and Fields said. “We had it in 2020 and then the pandemic hit. It is typically held in February and due to Covid we did not have it in 2021 or 2022. Halloran followed the same guidelines and policies all city of Cleveland facilities had to follow, such as social distancing and maximum capacity for participation. We are not planning to have an ice show this season as we do not currently have an ice skating instructor.”
Noll said if the city was more willing to work with volunteers and outside instructors, they could easily find someone. “I could find someone in a heartbeat,” he said. “There are a lot of people who would be willing to do this.”
Representing the area is Ward 11 city council member Brian Mooney, who recently won a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge race, beating out 16-year veteran Joan Synenberg despite not participating in editorial interviews with Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer of Judge4Yourself. This was thanks to Democratic Party support, he said. Mooney said the city’s online communication could be better, but people should be more understanding of the limited programming because Halloran’s roof leaks. “It presents a lot of problems keeping it open at times,” he said. “The water will leak and drop down on the ice and create hazards, and in the morning they’ll find big giant stalactites on the ice. The roof was supposed to get done earlier. People just don’t understand. There are a lot of roofs in the city that leak that aren’t going to get fixed this year. But this one will. It was our time.”
Mooney promised that when the new roof is completed, Halloran will be more accessible to the public, but he also said that Halloran is not a hockey rink. “The city does not have a hockey league, not one that’s associated with the rec center,” he said.
Falling out between the city and the rink’s nonprofit group
Until recently, the Huskies operated with very little oversight from the city, supported by a small nonprofit organization, the Husky Hockey Club. The organization raised money to pay for free equipment for the kids and families, many of whom couldn’t afford it. Hockey can be an expensive sport and it’s not uncommon for families to spend thousands of dollars a year on ice time, equipment, and travel.
“We wanted to help those kids who were up there all the time anyway,” said Marc Mazzarella, a retired firefighter who helped start the program. “They knew how to skate and if you put a stick in their hands they’d figure out what to do. We got ‘em camaraderie and we got ‘em off the streets. We had some kids who were from rough families.”
A few years ago, the city cut off ties with the nonprofit group after it found out they’d held a pond hockey fundraising event at the rink with alcohol (pond hockey is a scaled-down version of hockey). In 2018, the Husky Hockey Club had their tax-exempt nonprofit status revoked by the IRS because they didn’t file their tax forms. Noll said he wasn’t involved with the nonprofit, which is separate from the Huskies team, but he supports the city’s efforts to oversee the hockey program.
After the city cut off ties with the nonprofit, its members weren’t allowed to volunteer. For years, the nonprofit had made the ice at the rink, saving the city thousands of dollars, but the city now hires an outside vendor. “We put the ice in and it never cost the city a dime,” said Mazzarella. “They wouldn’t even let us do that. We liked it. It was a fun event putting that ice down.”
Mooney said the nonprofit was engaged in inappropriate and possibly even illegal activity and the city was right to cut off ties with them. Mazzarella confirmed that there was alcohol at the fundraisers, but said they also raised thousands of dollars every year to support the program.
Litany of complaints as the city takes over
Noll said after the falling out with the nonprofit, the city began taking control over the hockey program, which ultimately led to them renaming it the Hurricanes and downgrading it to skills and drills classes. The city began setting up barriers that made it harder for the Huskies to practice at the rink, including preventing them from organizing games with outside teams last season, even though many other rinks were open with Covid health and safety measures.
He said he brought his complaints to Fields, regional manager Jen Ryba, and Gissentaner, but didn’t get much help from them. Many people were afraid of speaking out for fear they wouldn’t be allowed to volunteer again, he said. “There was extreme hostility towards any kind of suggestion or complaint … If you were willing to file a complaint, or even try to talk to someone higher, you would have to be willing to not volunteer-coach again because it would be very likely you would not be asked to return,” he said.
One parent, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that their kids would be barred from being able to play hockey there if they spoke out publicly, said the rink used to be a real gathering place for the community, but it has changed in recent years. “They just re-did the rink and it’s not being used,” said the parent, who lived in the neighborhood for many years.
The parent said they have been bringing their kids to the rink since they were 3 and 4 years old. When they started playing hockey, the parent volunteered to organize and clean equipment and label kids’ helmets with their names. “All the equipment was really trashed, but we made do with the best we had,” they said. “We didn’t want them to have two different colored socks and have the opposing team make fun of them. We tried to make them look legit instead of like ruffians.”
When the city cut ties with the nonprofit, they started pushing out volunteers from the hockey program, too, the parent said. For example, the Cleveland Monsters gave the city a $30,000 grant to create an indoor game room and put up a scoreboard at Halloran, and the city took over the room the Huskies had used for equipment storage and moved them to a smaller back room. The game room contains a video gaming screen and a bubble hockey table, but several people told The Land that it is rarely open or used.
“They keep the game room locked and there’s never anyone in it,” the parent said. “I’ve seen the door open once and it’s because they were showing it to the councilperson.”
Fields and Gissentaner denied that this was true and stated, “The game room is open based on daily programming, registration, and staffing levels.” Mooney also stated the game room is open to the public.
The city also said that outside groups wishing to provide public programs need to submit a proposal to the rec center manager, regional manager, or commissioner a season in advance, but they must do so in person at the rec center using paper forms. It has to be approved by the manager. “The city has a right to decline programs or event requests,” Fields and Gissentaner stated. “These programs or events cannot displace any of our programs or activities.”
Last season, only two groups were able to rent the ice. The city was not accepting permit applications in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid. In 2022, Rocky River Youth Hockey rented the ice on January 25 and February 9 from 8-9:30 p.m., and on February 26 Team Ohio rented the facility for a youth hockey game from 6-8 p.m. This season, applications are not being accepted. “There are no scheduled permits to date for the 2022-2023 season,” Gissentaner and Fields stated. “The roof leaks and staffing are the concerns as to why permits are not accepted at this time.”
A cold shoulder
Many people The Land spoke to for this article said Halloran was not only hard to access, but also that the rink staff did not want to work with volunteers and outside groups.
Noll said the city could be doing more to facilitate ice rentals, but it’s cumbersome to rent and so it’s not being used a lot of the time. Groups have to submit paperwork two weeks in advance to the Department of Public Works along with a cashier’s check. Groups are also required to rent two hours of ice time at $90 per hour, which includes an hour of prep and cleaning by the rink’s staff. There’s no way to pay or register online, he said, and the city’s website does not advertise outside rentals.
“There’s a huge desire from the hockey community to rent the ice,” said Noll. “Ice is a finite resource, and there are lots of youth organizations begging to rent it. The city could be making lots of money or just involving the community more, but for whatever reason they will not.”
Colleen O’Malley, president of the Cleveland Sharks youth hockey group, said that ice time is in such demand in Northeast Ohio that the group would rent the ice once a week if they could. “Who wouldn’t want to play outside under the lights with the snow falling down?” said O’Malley, who has four kids who play hockey with the Cleveland Suburban Hockey League. “But now we have to go downtown and pay for a permit and pay by cashier’s check every time we want to reserve it. We used to be able to call and just pay by debit card or club check.”
Zickefoose said that applicants don’t have to go downtown and permit requests can be made at Halloran Skating Rink, but they must be made at least two weeks in advance of the date. The first step, she said, is to go to the rec center and discuss the request with the manager to see if it’s available. If it is, then the applicant would have to submit a cashier’s check or money order to the city for the cost. The application is then sent downtown for approval and, if accepted, a permit is created by the city’s special events staff and copies are distributed. If the application is rejected or canceled, the applicant is notified and the cashier’s check or money order is returned.
Mooney denied that it was difficult to rent the ice and said, “The primary focus is the kids of Cleveland. It’s also open as a regional asset, but it’s primarily for residents. This is not a hockey rink. Hockey is not its main focus. I agree that it could be friendlier, but it’s not difficult to access the ice, you just have to fill out a form and a check and bring it downtown.”
Still in the game
Despite their ongoing battles with the city as well as seasons lost to Covid, Noll and other coaches have found ways to keep hockey going. During the 2021-2022 season, when the city wouldn’t permit the Huskies to play outside groups at the rink, the team applied for a grant and held five games at North Olmsted ice rink. The thrown-together effort, which was dubbed “Hockey for All,” attracted dozens of players from all over Northeast Ohio.
“We had an awesome five games but this could have been even better if it was done at Halloran, which was sitting unused,” he said.
Noll gives credit to the city for Halloran’s upgrades and says that it’s an amazing resource to have a free rink in the city and for the Huskies to get free ice time all these years. Yet to fix the problems at Halloran and invite the community back in, Noll and other coaches would like to see regular, predictable operating hours, an accurate website and online communication, learn-to-skate programs, and streamlined registration.
Although rink manager Maryann Fields is supposed to be moving to another job, the city hasn’t yet hired her replacement, and so for now she’s still running the ice rink. In fact, she’s led the effort to change the name to the Hurricanes to divorce the program from the now-defunct nonprofit, Noll said.
“They’ve been known for 15 years as the Halloran Huskies,” said Noll. “This year she wants to change it to the Halloran Hurricanes. It’s within her right, but it’s a clear middle finger to everyone involved in the program.”
Mooney said he’d love to see the city more proactively market the rink and find a better way of working with volunteers, but he’s leaving office soon. “That’s something Bibb is trying to change, but the city is so large,” said Mooney, who sent a postcard this year to residents of his ward announcing Halloran’s hours. “There’s a lot of modernization we need.”
It’s not yet clear who will succeed Mooney. City council communications chief Joan Mazzolini told The Land that typically an outgoing council member with more than two years left on their term appoints an interim council member until a special election can be held to determine their successor, but that hasn’t happened yet.
As for Noll, he’s hopeful the new recreation center manager will take a kinder attitude towards the hockey program, and that they won’t lose yet another season this year, especially after already losing two to Covid. As we stood in the parking lot outside the rink, looking up at the iconic Halloran Park Skating Rink sign, he expressed his passion for the sport of hockey and working with kids from the city’s west side neighborhoods.
“Most of these kids live in the neighborhood, and I’ll see them walking to the rink, hauling their gear through the snow, because they like to keep it at home,” he said. “To see them make progress, to learn to pass and shoot and love the game of hockey, it’s incredible.”
To contact Nathan Noll, email him at [email protected] To learn more about the Halloran Skating rink hockey skills and drills program, visit the rink at 3550 W. 117th St. or call 216/664-4187.
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