By Mick Hatten
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — A winner in the move of the Blizzard North American Hockey Leauge Tier II junior hockey franchise from Brookings, S.D., to St. Cloud, Minn., is the Municipal Athletic Complex.
The St. Cloud Blizzard will be a new tenant for the MAC, which includes two sheets of ice and two baseball fields and has been in operation since 1972. The MAC is home to the St. Cloud Youth Hockey Association, the St. Cloud Figure Skating Club, the College of St. Benedict hockey team, Cathedral boys hockey team and St. Cloud Icebreakers hockey team.
Todd Bissett, the MAC’s operations director, said that he recently let the major users of the arena know that the Blizzard were coming. The franchise and the NAHL made an official announcement about the move on Monday, June 3.
“We met with the user groups in the last month or two to let them know,” Bissett said. “It sounds like a big commitment, but (the Blizzard) will practice between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. in a two-hour block sometime in there, so that doesn’t impact our users. They have 28 (regular season) games that we will fit between September and March.
“The impact on our (other) users will be very little.”
Something that could impact users will be a month after the high school season ends. The NAHL Robertson Cup playoffs this season began on April 12 and ended on May 14, though games on the franchise’s home ice finished on May 5.
There are four divisions in the 24-team league and each six-team division has four teams qualify for the playoffs and play two best-of-three series to determines which four teams advance to the Robertson Cup Finals, which are held at Fogerty Arena in Blaine, Minn. There are two best-of-three semifinals series to determine which two teams will play in the one-game championship game.
For the MAC, April and May may sound like rather dormant months for hockey. But there are AAA youth teams that have tournaments and games and there are also camps that are held during those months.
“April and May could be a little difficult with our spring tournaments,” Bissett said. “We may have to work something out there. That’s just going to require better planning and getting ahead of the game.”
The Blizzard will not be the first junior team to call the MAC home. The Granite City Lumberjacks, a Tier III junior hockey team, called Dave Torrey Arena home from 2007-11 before moving to Sports Arena East in Sauk Rapids, Minn. It is less than 6 miles to get from the MAC to Sports Arena East.
“It’s two different leagues and two different towns,” said Bissett, noting that St. Cloud has a population of more than 66,000. “The bottom line is they’re coming to a bigger market.”
The Brookings market is about 30,000, while the St. Cloud metro area has a population of more than 190,000, according to the United States Census Bureau. But when Blizzard owner Chris Canavati began talks with the MAC about a possible move about “5-6 months ago,” Bissett was a bit surprised.
“It came a little bit out of the blue, but at this point, we’re excited that they’re coming,” Bissett sad. “It sounds like they have a good plan in place. Hopefully, they can stick around for a long time.”
Space considerations, expansion
The addition of the Blizzard is not simply a matter of filling ice time, though. There are a number of other factors that the MAC needs to adjust for.
For instance, the Blizzard need a permanent locker room for the entire season. The plan, for the 2019-20 season, is to convert the first base dugout from the adjacent Dick Putz Field baseball park for the team, which is what the Lumerjacks used when they were tenants.
The Blizzard, like all junior hockey teams, also have full-time employees who will need office space and an area to pre-sell tickets.
“If you look at the office space in this building, you can see that we don’t have a lot of extra space,” Bissett said. “We may have to set up temporary rooms. We need to do our best to see what we can do for them in the short-term period. It’s going to hurt for a while until it gets better.”
The MAC has a proposed $24 million expansion project that they are looking to have funding for in 2020.
“The bonding bill didn’t get through this year because this is a non-bonding session (in the state legislature),” Bissett said. “Next year, we hope it is our year.
“With the Blizzard coming, we’re hoping that shows more for our need for funding. We have 28 games of regional people coming into our town and community, spending money and we want this to be a destination people want to come to.
“The city will be part of the funding along with advertising, naming rights and the users will have a small portion of that over the next 10-20 years.”
If the MAC gets the funding, the plan would include building a locker room for the Blizzard in the area between Dick Putz Field and the hockey arena. During the hockey offseason, the new building would be used for some baseball events and storage.
There remain some final financial details to work out between the MAC and the Blizzard, who have a one-year contract to use the St. Cloud arena. For instance, the division of the money for the current advertising on the boards in Torrey Arena.
“We’re still negotiating that and we want to make it fair and equitable,” Bissett said. “For the first couple years, they will fill in any open (board advertising) spots. Again, we haven’t fully figured all of that out yet.”
Profits from concession sales, though, will definitely go to the MAC.
“We have too many clients to try to divvy up the concessions, so the concessions have to be ours,” Bissett said.
The MAC is also home to the St. Cloud Rox, who play their home games across the street at Joe Faber Field. The Rox are a wooden-bat summer baseball league team for college players.
Like the Rox, the Blizzard will have some special amenities for VIP clients.
“They will do their own catering for that, just like the Rox do,” Bissett said.