Ground breaks on long-time dream for new ice

Soccer, basketball and hockey Huskie and Minor League athletes, with (l-r) Kohl Bauml, Bruce Bradshaw, Logan Hjelte, Lorne Wright, Mayor Charlie Clark, Ron Graham, Libby Epoch, President Peter Stoicheff, Merlis Belsher, Ken Cheveldayoff, Lawrence Rychjohn, Jack Van Norman and Gabriel Michael. Photo By Josh Schaefer/University of Saskatchewan/GetMyPhoto.ca

On April 28, a decades-long dream became a reality—the U of S started construction on Merlis Belsher Place, the replacement for 88-year old Rutherford Rink. Nearly 250 supporters, athletes, and community members turned up for the official groundbreaking ceremony to recognize the project’s many contributors and swift progress on the fundraising campaign.

Wright Construction will begin laying the foundation for the new multi-sport arena—located just south of the Saskatoon Field House—with piling work set to start in early May.

U of S President Peter Stoicheff noted the importance of the many community relationships which have facilitated progress on the project—including the City of Saskatoon, Saskatoon Minor Hockey Association and the campaign’s country-wide volunteer team.

“Developing strong partnerships has never been more important to us than it is today, and Merlis Belsher Place is a great example of the power and potential of these partnerships,” he said. “Thanks to our community’s diverse and generous support, I’m pleased this facility will make a real difference in the lives of our athletes and their families, and contribute to the health and economic impact of our city.”

Elder Fred Sasakamoose (left), with alumnus Sheldon Wuttunee, shared a traditional Cree blessing to honour the land before construction begins. Sasakamoose was the first Indigenous person ever to play in the NHL when he joined the Chicago Blackhawks in 1954. He said he was pleased that four of his grandchildren will have the opportunity to play in the new arena, thanks to the community focus of the project. Photo By Josh Schaefer/University of Saskatchewan/GetMyPhoto.ca

The university’s Home Ice Campaign fundraising team—consisting of many alumni and former Huskie athletes across Canada—has raised $28.4 million in the last year to help build the new facility. The public campaign kicked off last October when the university unveiled commerce and law graduate Merlis Belsher’s leading gift of $12.25 million—the largest donation from an alumnus and individual in the university’s history.

Recent major gifts that have helped propel the fundraising team towards the $29 million campaign goal include a $2.51 million contribution from Huskie hockey alumni in early April, the City of Saskatoon’s additional $3 million commitment to the project in February, and Ron and Jane Graham’s $4 million gift in December to add two gymnasiums to the arena. Since the fall, additional enhancements to the architectural plans for the facility also include three additional rows of spectator seating, allowing for almost 3,500 fans.

Tim Hodgson, chair of the Saskatoon Home Ice Campaign committee, credits the success of the fundraising team to the wide-ranging impact of the new arena—for both university athletes and Saskatoon residents.

“The community has really supported this project because it will benefit so many,” he noted. “On one level, anyone with a connection to the Huskies knows that we need a new facility, for the sake of the programs. On another level, we have supporters who have a very strong connection to the community, who recognize the benefits to Saskatoon minor hockey. And there is incredible sports tourism potential—for provincial, regional and national championships in sports like ringette, figure skating, short track speed skating and lacrosse.” Hodgson leads the Home Ice Campaign team alongside his former Huskie hockey coach, campaign chair Dave King.

It is estimated that the twin-ice, multi-sport complex will be open for the start of the hockey season in October 2018, while the two NBA-length practice gymnasiums will be ready for Huskie basketball in 2019.

Belsher, lead donor and community advocate for the Home Ice Campaign, said he felt emotional and excited about reaching the groundbreaking milestone so quickly. “It’s been a privilege to be involved in this campaign and see the momentum that was built in the community for this project,” he said. “I knew there was an urgent need for a new ice facility, not only for the University of Saskatchewan, but also for Saskatoon minor hockey. So it is gratifying to see that there will be ice in the fall of 2018.”

To see more photos from the event, please visit http://huskies.usask.ca/general/2016-17/photos/0005/index

By Jessica Elfar