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December 7, 2022 - 11:01pm

Progress, painting, and pucks: good things happening at McCarthy ice arena

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After a tour of The McCarthy (a condensed version of David M. McCarthy Memorial Ice Arena sometimes used at the rink) Monday, and noting the newly painted fiberglass benches — in “Rampart Blue” — it was clear that a transformation has been taking place.

Led by ice arena operator/manager Matt Gray and his folks, Bob and Sharon Gray, representing Friends of the Rink, this tour showed off the hard work and diligence it takes to turn around an aging, unkempt facility.

Just ask City Council members. They raved about the differences at the rink during a recent council meeting. Bob Bialkowski noted the work and dedication of Friends of the Rink, while Paul Viele commended the condition of the smooth ice — “it’s like day and night” — and Tammy Schmidt happily reported that she attended a game, and kept warm with working heaters for a change.

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Two meeting/training rooms have been carved out of the space and painted an ivory cream. Dark chocolate tiles have been installed on the ceiling, and a storage room with clean white cupboards lining one wall and a granite countertop is gradually turning into Matt’s office. A wall opposite the arena itself has also been painted, with a pale blue and Rampart blue trim — a feat performed by Sharon, she proudly said.

“That was built in 1994, but never painted. In every picture from high school, you see him playing, and here's his ugly backdrop,” she said. “So we painted, that was our first project this year. I painted it, and my grandson did the upper part.”

So far, members of the Friends group have put in 407 hours of hands-on volunteer time at the Evans Street arena. With their prompting, the city tore out a ramp with a huge pothole in it and rebuilt that section used for Zamboni storage.

Matt’s first goals were to revamp the concession area, which has been completed along with the addition of more hot food and install new brighter lighting. He is testing out three lights over the rink before proceeding with a larger purchase.

Rink management, including General Manager Kati Murray and Facilities Manager Adam Reich, is on the lookout for 12- to 16-foot conference tables for the meeting rooms, and Gray plans to have wiring installed with Cat 6 data cabling for integrated WiFi, which will allow for Zoom meetings and connect to a large television and camera — donated by Batavia Rotary — for game replays.

Carpet tiles will be added for its use as a “flex space,” he said, as Sharon added that someone recently hosted a birthday party there.

A future goal may be to serve brews at The McCarthy — sounds like a pub, doesn’t it? Other ideas include opening the rink year-round with roller hockey, and having an open public time for recreational roller skating and blading, Matt said.

When the elder Grays formed Friends of the Rink in 2020, they wanted to improve issues they had noticed over the years. A hockey player asked Bob why he was getting so involved. This is just an ice rink, the player said.

“And I said, ‘Yeah, but why can't it be the best ice rink in Western New York? Then when we get Western New York, we can have the best in the state, and keep going,” Bob said, adding that issues of unwanted running water, a filthy environment and poor communication have hurt the arena.  “I’ve been here throughout the years, and I see a big improvement.”

The Gray couple agreed that they want to see the rink bounce back, and for youth to be able to enjoy it and perhaps make good friends, just as their son and grandchildren have done.

“That's what we're looking for. We're doing it for the kids,” Bob said. “Matt was a big influence when he took over. We worked like busy beavers.”

Sharon added that she fell on the floor crying when she found out that Matt was taking on rink management. He certainly has the experience, having been a rink user for years, and the business acumen as a local entrepreneur of several successful establishments.

When asked if things have changed from years ago, Sharon had a definitive answer.

“Oh yes, 180 percent,” she said.

And sometimes what’s old is new again.

“We're old timers, you know, so this is a way we used to do it. We’d say, 'why can't we do it like that,' and it worked,” Bob said. “You know, we bring up ideas, and they say, ‘Oh, this is a good idea,’ when it was something we did years ago. We're just bringing it back.”

He’s talking as much about the social aspects of the rink and ice hockey as he is about the structural and aesthetic components. Amateur hockey membership had dropped from 425 players to 257 last year, and for reasons that include family busyness, a wide scope of recreational options — lacrosse and soccer are two popular ones — and other distractions for prospective players, all three Grays said.

This is not just a Batavia phenomenon, they said, but a national one of having multiple options of things to do. And, as Bob said, playing hockey is not just something to do, “it’s a lifestyle.”

“Either you’re in, or you’re out,” he said.

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His family has been mostly in — since 1980, when Matt was a beginner on the ice. He aged out in 1996, and soon grandchildren laced up. Despite the downturn of participation in recent years, the Grays are “seeing more family involvement.”

That was one of the biggest benefits for Matt when as a kid, he played ice hockey and made friends for life. He was all in, as any avid hockey player is, Bob said. Another reason that may prevent more kids from participating nowadays is the cost. Helmets, protective gear, and sticks can quickly total $1,200 or more, he said. (See related story about equipment donations.)

Friends of the Rink hosted a Try Hockey For Free kids program this fall and will do so again in February. Members are also mulling a similar event for adults.

As for ice play, and related amenities, Matt plans to reconfigure the bathrooms and showers so that space is more equitable for female players.

“We have a checklist of things that we want to get done this year, next year, and the year after. And then there are side things where Bob, Sharon, Friends of the Rink can really help us do that, outside of what we have otherwise,” Matt said. “And staff have been fantastic with, you know, taking on new projects and doing it in between everything else they have responsibilities for, and then they fill in the gaps on different projects.”

Anyone interested in watching a game remotely may do so through LiveBarn, a subscription-based app. Although parents will typically attend in person, that will be a great tool for coaches scouting out the talent, Matt said, and Batavia United coaches John Kirkwood and Marc Staley set up the app.

For more information about the rink and hours, go to The McCarthy.  

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Top Photo: Matt Gray and his folks, Bob and Sharon of Friends of the Rink, provide a tour of rink updates and discuss future plans of the Evans Street site; Bob Gray shows the newly painted benches that sit near the concession inside the arena; Matt Gray shows a painted wooden cutout of the Ramparts logo as it sits atop a handmade table in one of the multi-use meeting rooms; ice play in action on the rink.

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