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St. Thomas hockey's search for a new rink site continues

Two attempts to find a new hockey home near the St. Thomas campus in St. Paul have been rejected, but athletic department officials remain confident that a more permanent home for Tommies hockey can be found in the future.

Minnesota State St. Thomas
St. Thomas' Joey Sofo chases the puck on a Tommies power play during a game Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022 against Minnesota State in Mendota Heights, Minn. Sofo scored on that power play.
Shannon Stieg / Special to The Rink Live

ST. PAUL — There’s an accepted rule in the real estate acquisition world that if you publicly express interest in a piece of property, the price is going to go up — often rapidly and considerably.

With that in mind, as the search continues for a future home rink site for men’s and women’s hockey at the University of St. Thomas, one can understand if Tommies athletic department officials aren’t handing out a ton of details about where their teams might be calling home a few years from now.

Phil Esten, the St Thomas athletic director, was open and friendly, yet reserved, in a recent conversion along these lines with The Rink Live.

“I wish I could say more in terms of what we’re looking at, but I want to be fair and sensitive to the parties involved,” said Esten, who came to St. Thomas in early 2019 and has overseen their transition to Division I athletics across the board. “And I want to put everybody in a good position to very authentically consider what all the options are.”

The Bridge is out

“Highland Bridge” is the fancy name for the former Ford Motors plant site along the Mississippi River in St. Paul, which sits a little less than two miles south of the St. Thomas campus. The site, which includes more than 130 acres of land, is being developed with condos, shopping and public spaces.

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For a time, it looked like it would also be the future home of some Tommies sports, but after much discussion, the school announced last month that it was no longer considering Highland Bridge as a potential sports facilities site. While Esten didn’t say as much, his comments made it sound like the price tag had gotten too high.

Highland Bridge development
Montreal Avenue looking west from Cleveland Avenue as construction continues in the Highland Bridge development of St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood on Friday, June 3, 2022. The University of St. Thomas has proposed amendments to the Highland Bridge master plan that would allow a hockey arena, softball stadium and baseball stadium at Montreal and Cleveland avenues.
John Autey / Pioneer Press

“With the Ford plant or Highland Bridge, we went quite a ways with that, and I think it’s still a fantastic location,” Esten said. “There would be a lot of community benefit and a lot of entertainment benefit. That development is going to be really dynamic. But as we started to look at the complexities and the rising costs, it just wasn’t something we thought we could make work.”

The rejection of that potential site comes roughly five months after the school made an unsolicited bid of more than $61 million for The Town and Country Club, a private golf course on a hill overlooking the river and downtown Minneapolis which sits a just few blocks from the north side of the St. Thomas campus. The golf course quickly said no thank you.

Per Esten, there are challenges to playing off-campus, as the Tommies currently do, so proximity to the bulk of St. Thomas students is a priority when looking for the next potential sports facility site.

“Right now, we’re looking at options. We haven’t landed on anything that I can say we’ve solidified,” he said. “We would prefer to stay in St. Paul and be as close to campus as we can be. That’s because we want the student-athlete experience to be as good as it can be.”

Academy is accommodating

In their first season as a D-I program, the Tommies men played 14 of their 15 home games at St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights. The home of St. Thomas Academy, and of the Tommies when they played at the Division-III level, officially has seating for roughly 800 and is a 15-minute drive from the campus. The Tommies sold out one home game last winter, aided by a good contingent of Michigan Tech alumni in the Twin Cities buying tickets for a 2-0 Huskies win. They were near a sellout versus in-state rival Minnesota State Mankato, and got two of their three victories in their home rink.

Hockey Coach Rico Blasi
Rico Blasi was given his own University of St. Thomas hockey jersey by director of athletics Phil Esten during a press conference in the James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall on April 6, 2021 in St. Paul. Blasi was named the school's first Division I hockey coach.
Liam James Doyle / University of St. Thomas

They plan on playing there for the next two seasons, at minimum.

“We’ve had a great relationship with St. Thomas Academy and it appears as if we’re going to continue to work with the academy while we’re looking for what’s next for us,” Esten said.

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He added that the feedback from Tommies fans who came to Mendota Heights last winter was mostly positive, noting the uptick in speed and intensity of the hockey in the CCHA as compared to the MIAC, where they played as a D-III program.

Special occasion option

The Tommies played their first-ever home game as a D-I program in St. Paul last October, drawing more than 4,000 to Xcel Energy Center for a 2-0 loss to St. Cloud State. While some have talked about using the lower bowl of the Wild’s home rink as a temporary home while they build something, Esten said the school’s relationship with the NHL rink is in good standing, but Mendota Heights is their current home and they will consider games in the state’s premiere hockey venue only on special occasions.

“We want a home ice advantage,” Esten said. “If we think we can do something special and it can be an extraordinary event, that’s when you look at somewhere like the Xcel Energy Center … but on a regular basis we want to create that home ice advantage and we think we can do that at the academy. That’s where we practice, that’s where our locker room is and the players are familiar with it. And when you pack that place, it’s a hard place to play.”

So for now, the Tommies are watching the real estate options, and watching the calendar. Esten admitted that the clock is ticking if they are to find a site for their next home rink in order to be in a new building by the start of the 2025-26 campaign.

“When you back up the timeline from construction, design, entitlement and everything else, that’s about a two- to two-and-a-half or three-year process. So we’re at a point right now where if we can proceed by January (of 2023), we’re looking at the fall of ‘25. And then every year past that pushes it back a year,” he said. “We’re still on pace right now to be in something (new) by the fall of ‘25 and we’re working really hard to find what that final option might be.”

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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