Of the seven arenas in the ECHL's Pacific Division last season, the oldest by far was Sullivan Arena – the Alaska Aces' home rink, which opened in 1983, was 14 years older than any other building.
Of the 10 arenas in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, Sullivan was the fourth-oldest facility. And the three buildings on the circuit older than Sullivan have undergone significant renovations and upgrades inside the last decade.
But the worn, aging Sullivan – home of garish reddish-orange and yellow seats, and an outdated, rickety ice-making system – is getting a summer makeover.
As part of a state grant-funded $9 million the city said is being spent on the transformation, the arena is getting a new ice-making plant, new floor, all new seats, new dasher boards surrounding the rink, new Plexiglass and new paint.
That amounts to the most significant work done on the multi-use building that was constructed as part of "Project '80s,'' when the state invested oil earnings in building public facilities like Sullivan Arena, the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, Loussac Library and the Egan Civic and Convention Center.
Work on the arena that seats more than 6,000 for hockey is scheduled to be completed before the Aces and Seawolves open their seasons in early October.
"You won't even recognize it when you come in,'' said Joe Wooden, general manager for SMG, which operates the building.
A carbon dioxide refrigeration system is being installed to replace the dilapidated Freon-based system that is outdated and in 2012 suffered corroded piping that compromised the ability to make ice. That scare threatened scheduled home dates to start that season for both the Aces and Seawolves before repairs resolved the problem.
At the time, officials with the Aces and Seawolves, and SMG, were thankful the breakdown preceded the start of the season and did not happen in-season, when repairs would have necessitated moving games to different, smaller venues.
Those repairs still did not perfectly solve the problem. In the last two seasons, between games and practices, insulating boards were often placed on troublesome portions of the rink. Aces managing member Terry Parks said the team last season paid $17,000 for an insurance policy that would have shielded it in the event of a catastrophic failure with the ice-making system.
Though fans will see the new glass, boards, seats and paint as obvious improvements, the new ice plant is the most critical upgrade. Freon systems are being phased out by environmental regulations, and replacement parts are nearly impossible to find anyhow.
"I tell people all the time, we're more excited by what you don't see, because we can't play without ice,'' Parks said.
Wooden said the new ice plant is a vital upgrade.
"It will be much more efficient, and the fact that it's brand new means we won't have the problems we had three or four years ago,'' he said.
The Aces last year furnished the arena and hockey fans a significant upgrade when they purchased an enormous, four-sided scoreboard, replete with video screens, from an ECHL team that folded. That scoreboard now hangs over center ice at Sullivan, furnishes replays and highlights, and is a marked improvement over the one-screen "Sully-Vision'' board previously located on the arena's east wall.
The Aces and Seawolves are the most frequent tenants at Sullivan, which features lower-bowl seating surrounding the rink and balcony seating on the north and south sides of the rink. The Aces each season play a minimum of 38 dates – two exhibition games and 36 regular-season games – and almost always play extra dates at Sullivan in the playoffs. The Seawolves have 18 home games scheduled at Sullivan next season.
All 6,000-plus seats in Sullivan are being replaced. Gone will be the garish colors, replaced by seats gray and mauve, and in three center sections in the lower bowl, padded seats that will be called club seats. Every seat in the building will have a cup-holder, an amenity lacking in the old seats.
Many seats will also be wider, and thus presumably more comfortable, than before. Wider seats will reduce the number of seats, probably by at least 200, Wooden said. That should not be a problem for the hockey teams – the Aces only occasionally sell out the building and the Seawolves haven't done so in more than a decade.
Sightlines at hockey games should also be improved by instillation of new, lower glass around much of the rink. The new glass, particularly in the areas basically between the blue lines, will be six feet high, a reduction of two feet. The supports between panes of glass will also be transparent.
"That's probably the most obvious thing the fans of the Seawolves and the Aces will see – they can see through the glass,'' said UAA athletic director Keith Hackett. "I think that'll bring people down closer to the ice.
"I think all of this work is going to give both fans of the Seawolves and the Aces a better fan experience.''
"When you walk in, you're going to see a totally new perspective on the arena,'' he said. "I think it will be a much better look, and be more comfortable.''
Reach Doyle Woody at firstname.lastname@example.org, check out his blog at adn.com/hockey-blog and follow him on Twitter at @JaromirBlagr
Alaska Dispatch Publishing