BREWER, Maine — There was a time when Kevin Audibert, president of the Brewer Youth Hockey Association, didn’t know what to expect when he would show up at the Penobscot Ice Arena in Brewer for a practice or a game.
Until George and Linda Bishop bought the facility from Roger Theriault in late September, the rink’s status was on thin ice.
Theriault lived in the Lewiston area and wasn’t able to put money into the facility. Players, coaches and parents said the facility was unsafe and filthy and in dire need of a complete facelift.
“It was very frustrating. I was always worried that I would show up one day and the doors would be locked [because the rink had closed],” said Audibert. “The city didn’t want to shut it down but things were heading down that road. It was almost inevitable due to the amount of money owed from things like back taxes and sewer bills.”
“A lot of times, I’d wonder if it would be the last time I would get to play here. That’s how bad the rink was,” said former Brewer High School standout Jacob Chapman, who is now an assistant coach at his alma mater.
“I was a little shocked it hadn’t been shut down,” admitted Chapman.
But the Bishops have resurrected the facility and the upgrade has been eye-opening.
“It is 50 times better than it was last year,” said Brewer High senior Gehrig White. “The locker rooms and the showers are warm and they are really clean. They used to be cold and dirty. They weren’t taken care of.”
Brewer freshman Trey Wood said it is obvious “they have put a lot of money into it.”
The players also said it smells good in the locker rooms — a departure from the past.
“We couldn’t be happier. There has been a 100 percent turnaround. They have completely renovated it,” Audibert said.
“I can’t tell you how impressed I am,” said Brewer High School hockey coach Dave Shedd. “The difference has been phenomenal.”
The Bishops had contemplated buying the 18-year-old arena for a long time.
“We had kicked it around for a number of years,” said George Bishop, who loves hockey. “We thought it was too bad someone wouldn’t step in to bring it back to life or at least attempt to. It’s a long haul because ice rinks traditionally don’t make money. The electrical bills are out of this world. We pay $5,500-$7,500 month just to keep the ice.
“I was more on the fence than Linda was,” he added. “She said ‘We’re either going to do it now or not.’ I said let’s give it a whirl. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
The Bishops own Penobscot Cleaning Services Inc. in Brewer and Trenton and have a 12-year-old daughter, Janessa, who plays hockey.
George Bishop also runs Brewer’s Learn to Skate program.
He won’t say what they paid for the arena but said the renovations cost “roughly $180,000.”
His first order of business was to clean it.
“We had over 975 man-hours invested in cleaning it. But that’s what we do for a living,” he said. “It was so filthy in here. It was deplorable.”
Presque Isle coach Carl Flynn said they did a very good job cleaning it.
“It’s much cleaner. The showers have all been re-tiled and there were heating units in the locker rooms. They’ve done a lot of cosmetic things,” Flynn said.
“We used to have to try to scrounge up some space heaters for the locker rooms,” said Brewer freshman Collin Averill.
“There used to be mold on the walls but there isn’t any more,” said Brewer freshman Konlon Kilroy.
“Kids used to get sick from this facility,” Chapman said. “It’s nice to have a clean place to play.”
The list of improvements is extensive and the Bishops have long-range goals to further improve the facility.
In addition to the locker rooms, which have new ceiling tiles and benches, they have upgraded the electrical system, heating unit and the plumbing and have insulated a wall that Bishop said had a “void in it” which allowed wind to blow through it and contribute to the frosty temperature in the building. They have upgraded the lighting.
“When I used to walk into the locker room, it was dark. It was very dismal and very depressing,” said Shedd.
Girls finally have a “good-sized locker room that can hold up to 15,” according to Bishop. It used to be the size of a closet, he noted.
Then there is the warming room, which is sponsored by the BDN, complete with leather couches, an electric fireplace, five arcade games, a concession stand and a wall covered with banners from NHL teams.
“I’d like to put a 65-inch TV screen in there so people could watch games,” Bishop said.
“You don’t find leather couches and a fireplace in a rink very often,” said Old Town/Orono hockey coach and former Bangor High coach Denis Collins.
The Bishops have spent approximately $50,000 to purchase seven-year-old boards and tempered glass from a rink in Saco. They will be installed during their six-week break beginning in May.
“It will be good to have some good stable boards. These boards stick out and the boards, the glass and the stanchions aren’t stable at all,” said Chapman. “It’s dangerous.”
“The boards will be a real finishing touch to the ice surface,” Audibert added.
The Bishops are also looking into possibly obtaining a chiller system or upgrading the current one.
“The chiller system hadn’t been properly maintained in the past,” said Bishop. “We’re hoping to have one that is energy efficient and economical.”
The Bishops also bought a Zamboni and fixed the old Zamboni.
“It seemed like the old one used to break down every game,” said White.
Collins, a longtime youth league coach in Brewer, said there would be times the ice would be virtually snow-covered for practices because of the malfunctioning Zamboni.
Shedd, a contractor by trade, said the interior work is impressive.
“And I know, first-hand, the type of work [and materials] that went into it,” Shedd said.
Bishop said he and his wife have received lots of support from the city of Brewer, the local community and sponsors whose logos are on the boards.
He said they have gained four men’s league teams that had been playing at the University of Maine’s Alfond Arena in Orono.
“They had originally played here but they left because of the condition of the rink,” said Bishop, who would also like to lure the Hampden Academy hockey team back after they left PIA for Bangor’s Sawyer Arena a year ago.
Bishop hopes to make a little money off the arena someday and he would put that money back into the facility. But he’ll settle for breaking even.
He would love to see a bigtime sponsor come on board and assume the naming-right of the facility.
He would also like to be able to explore the possibility of adding another ice surface some day.
But, for the time being, “we want it to be something the community can be really proud of.”