Edina Lakers drawn to school district’s sports center
In a few months, Forest Lake sports fans will once again have a Lakers team to cheer for. Unlike the former amateur baseball squad, these Lakers will play on ice.
The owner of the Edina Lakers on Friday signed a five-year deal with the Forest Lake Area School District that will bring the Minnesota Junior Hockey League club to town.
The Forest Lake Lakers will play 24 regular-season home games from September through February at the Forest Lake Sports Center, which the school district purchased in November.
“We’ve done our homework,” Lakers owner Ralph Hayne said. “Moving to Forest Lake is a strategic move that offers great potential for the team and community while providing our program and players with unparalleled resources. We have made a significant financial commitment to the community and intend to compete at the national level representing Forest Lake and the MnJHL.”
Searching for home
Lakers officials reached out to the school district as soon as it purchased the sports center, according to Forest Lake Area Schools Business Director Larry Martini.
“They were looking to find a community with demographics very similar to ours,” he said.
Negotiation began around Jan. 1. Hayne said he considered researching the Wisconsin communities of New Richmond and Somerset, but that never manifested as he closed in on the Forest Lake deal.
Hayne is the longest-tenured owner in the college preparatory league, but the Lakers have bounced from city to city due mainly to facility issues.
Hayne founded the East Metro Lakers in 1993. The team first called Maplewood home, then St. Paul. In both cases, arenas lacked a locker room dedicated to the team, so the Lakers moved to Inver Grove Heights in 2006. There they enjoyed nicer facilities but still shared showers with a community center. In 2011, Hayne moved the team to Edina due to cheaper ice time and plans for new facilities.
The new ice sheet and locker room never came to fruition, and Hayne said the team was left playing games on a practice rink.
Forest Lake came up for the first time during a brainstorming session of team officials. Hayne was unaware of the $5.5 million facility that had been built in 2008.
“I said, ‘I think the arena there is 50 years old,’” he said.
He visited the sports center and the city and was instantly sold.
“I’m not sleeping at night right now, I’m so excited about moving to that awesome arena,” he said. “We survived over in our practice rink, and they’ve been good to us and all that, but this is a much better deal. A lot of good things are coming out of this.”
As part of the deal, the school district will make sure the Lakers have more of a place to call home than ever before. Construction estimated at nearly $100,000 will provide the team with a 27-stall locker room with showers, a coaches office and an equipment room. The addition will be located across the hall from the existing locker rooms, in what is now green space between Lichtscheidel Arena and the multipurpose dome on the facility’s east end. A new laundry room will be shared by the Lakers, the Forest Lake High School hockey programs and the Forest Lake Hockey Association.
The team also plans to add equipment to a multipurpose training room on the second floor.
Besides for facilities, Hayne was looking to move to a city that will get behind the team. The hockey market in Edina was oversaturated, he said.
“The real big picture is the opportunity to get involved in the community,” he said. “That was impossible in Edina; we were a wart. I think we’re going to do something different in Forest Lake.”
Such involvement includes working with other arena users, including the hockey association and the high school teams. Hayne has already met with many coaches and officials.
“We wanted first and foremost to make ourselves available to the other arena user groups and to let them know we want to help not only their programs, but also to grow the game of hockey at all levels in Forest Lake,” he said. “We will immediately offer our services to these organizations and welcome their support and input as well.”
Tickets will likely cost $8 for adults, $5 for children and may be free to fans under 10, Hayne said. Home games will feature promotions and contests.
Martini said Hayne impressed school officials with a late-2013 pitch.
“I don’t think anyone walked out thinking this is going to be a bad deal,” he said. “There were a lot of win-wins.”
That the school district already projected to operate the sports center in the black does not lessen the significance of the Lakers contract, Martini said.
“We’re pretty excited about the fact that this is going to be a long-term positive for us,” he said.
The contract calls for the Lakers to pay about $30,000 annually for a set amount of ice time. Time beyond that limit will be rented by the hour.
Martini estimates that income from the team will pay for the construction within three years, and the district will put the revenue from the contract’s final two years into its general fund.
The Lakers will keep the proceeds from game attendance. The Forest Lake Area Athletic Association will have the option to run the concession stand and keep its proceeds.
Minor scheduling concerns exist, but Martini feels they can be worked around. The Lakers will practice in the morning, and their games may conflict with the high school schedule once every few weeks.
School officials also are excited about opportunities for partnerships between the Ranger hockey programs, the youth association and the Lakers.
Martini said both parties in the contract hope the sports center is the home of the Lakers for longer than five years.
“That’s their goal and our goal, as well,” he said.
The Minnesota Junior Hockey League is one of 12 leagues certified by USA Hockey at the Tier III level. Being in the lowest of three junior hockey tiers, these leagues are fed primarily by high school graduates who hope to get noticed by colleges. The bulk of players that move on do so to Division III or club programs.
Players pay tuition and a billet fee and stay with host families. Hayne said many parents balk at the concept at first, but the fact is that colleges recruit most of their players from juniors.
The teams are nonprofit and strive to keep costs down, said Hayne, who encourages players to continue their education while with the team. The Lakers employ a housing coordinator and education coordinator to ease players’ transition, as most in the league come from out of state.
Still, local talent is prized, and Hayne said he hopes to forge relationships with local hockey associations so that area athletes are comfortable playing for the Lakers after high school.
“When you have the opportunity to get kids like that, that spreads into the community,” he said. “They’ll follow players they know.”
The Lakers went 12-30-0-3 to place seventh in the eight-team Minnesota division this winter. The other teams hail from Isanti, Maple Grove, Bloomington, Owatonna, Rochester, Lake Delton, Wis. and Hudson, Wis.
The MnJHL since 2012 has overseen an eight-team Great Lakes Division, which will be incorporated into the league for the 2014-15 season.
The Lakers on Saturday announced the hiring of Dennis Canfield as head coach. The Buffalo, N.Y., native co-founded the Jamestown Jets, a former junior hockey team in New York.
The Lakers will host tryouts at the sports center over the first weekend in August. The relocation will create several part-time staff openings.
More information on the team can be found at www.lakershockey.com.