The dusty tan warehouse on Stewart Street doesn’t look like much from the outside.
Tucked against the Puyallup River on the Tacoma Tideflats, between a parking lot and a business that has applied to become a cannabis producer and processor, the Puget Sound Hockey Center has nourished young hockey players and speed skaters for 24 years.
It’s where Olympic dreams are born, and children grow into adults with their love of the sport and the friendships forged.
On Sept. 9, the hockey center’s founders, Donna and Rob Kaufman, opened an email they never wanted to receive. It said they had 30 days to leave the paper warehouse-turned regulation-size National Hockey League rink, where thousands of children have learned to play the rough and tumble sport for 24 years.
“I was completely shocked, and it hit me very hard,” Donna Kaufman said. “I went home that day. … It’s more than just an ice rink. It’s a family.”
Though the Kaufmans had a stress-filled two weeks, their story tentatively has a happy ending.
The Kaufmans learned the building had been sold by its former owner, John West of Codapuck LLC, to Seattle-based R41 LLC.
R41 LLC’s officers, Ray Robbin and Arthur Richardson, said they bought the warehouse for $2.4 million because they saw it as a good investment. They aren’t sure what they plan to do with it, but do not plan on continuing the rink.
The two men also are officers with another LLC, Emerald Jane’s. Its website says it grows “handcrafted recreational cannabis” in Seattle. There has been no license to grow or process marijuana filed for the Tideflats address, LCB spokesman Mikhail Carpenter said via email Thursday.
Negotiations to secure a lease with the new owners failed, and the Kaufmans said the rink and all of their equipment must move out by Oct 31.
Late last week, Rob Kaufman had news. They had secured a new facility, the former Pacific Sports Center, at 2645 S. 80th St. He praised the new location’s size and its visibility from Interstate 5.
It’s large enough to host two regulation hockey rinks end to end, Rob Kaufman said, with room for a pro shop, a health and fitness center, and possibly a full-service sports pub. An extra rink will allow the center to offer broomball and curling leagues, he said.
The location on South 80th Street could be a boon for the South Sound hockey crew. Players will practice in a much larger facility near Bates Technical College’s south campus, while the parents can watch from an elevated perch much larger than the current one.
Tentatively called Tacoma Twin Rinks, the Kaufmans hope to have one rink up and running as early as January, and perhaps both by the end of next summer. They are trying to raise money through an online fundraising campaign to offset moving and storage costs.
The last hockey game at their current site on the Tideflats will end at 11:05 p.m. on Oct. 2. Donna Kaufman said they won’t have time for a special goodbye. It took three months to assemble the rink 24 years ago, and they will have less than a month to move it and their two Zambonis clear across town.
They have no doubt their supporters will rally to help.
“The first month we were here, the roof blew off in a windstorm,” Donna Kaufman said. For every setback, “The hockey community has come forward to support us.”
SPEED SKATERS TRAINING ON ICE
The youth Tacoma Rockets and adult Rainier Hockey League are not the only users of the soon-to-be-closed rink. Young speed skaters train on the ice, too.
Olympians, including short track speed skating phenom Apolo Ohno, trained here. Other youths have gone on to the NHL or attended college with their talent on the ice.
On Thursday, around a dozen youths on long, gangly skates whirled around the Puget Sound Hockey Center’s rink. They paid rapt attention to their coach, Chang Ho Lee, the former coach for various South Korean national short and long track teams.
Parents watched their progress and mulled the future of the program in a crow’s nest overlooking the track. Many drive south in thick afternoon traffic from Kirkland, Bellevue and Auburn to have their children coached by Lee, who was named this year’s U.S. speedskating coach of the year for those who train youths into elite athletes.
Kirkland resident Mike McLeod said his son, Cooper, 14, is worried he won’t have enough ice time before qualifying speed skating races in January. Last year, Cooper was a top-five finalist for Sports Illustrated Kid of the Year and also competes in in-line roller skating, the land-based version of speed skating.
“He’s upset from the standpoint that he’s trying to make the USA Junior World Team to go to Helsinki, Finland,” Mike McLeod said.
Other parents echoed similar concerns of losing access to ice during a critical training window before national qualifiers and international races.
The children train for three hours a day — half on the ice and half on land. Ice training is critical to learning the proper technique.
“We are very worried about the circumstance. … We are still looking for any other ice rink,” Coach Lee said. “I’ve contacted other ice rinks and they don’t have ice time.”
But the attitude of his charges is not futility — it’s perseverance.
Eunice Lee, 11, said she was sad when she learned they couldn’t train on the Tideflats anymore.
“This is where he teaches us to work hard,” she said.
But to compensate for a loss of ice time, Janine Park, 12, said “We are going to have to work harder.”
Until late last week, the Kaufmans despaired what would happen to the rink and the players just starting their hockey seasons. The schedules of many nearby rinks are mostly full.
Their current venue is a snug fit for its rink, and the schedule is packed with practices and games.
When there’s not enough room, some games spill over into the Sprinker Recreation Center in Parkland.
In the meantime, the couple has reached out to other ice arenas across Western Washington.
“Sprinker Recreation Center has cleared a ton of ice for us,” Donna Kaufman said.
Kyle Wintermute, the general manager for Sprinker, said the Puget Sound Amateur Hockey Association and Sprinker have worked together for four years.
When Sprinker was remodeled in 2011, its ice sports leagues also played on the Tideflats.
“We are trying to be as accommodating as possible,” Wintermute said. He said he doesn’t have a lot of details, but they are shuffling the schedule to make room for the displaced hockey teams.
This means some games could start as early as 6 a.m., and others will end near midnight, Donna Kaufman said.
Chad Eberhart, who plays adult hockey and whose kids also play, said he learned of the closure about a week ago.
“As long as the kids get a full season, it’s fine,” he said. But it will be hard leaving the Tideflats. “This is home. It’s difficult.”