Ohio State at California (PA)
Rostraver Ice Garden
Belle Vernon, PA
February 1, 2020
It’s hard to explain Rostraver Ice Garden to someone who’s never been there, other than by pointing out that she was born in 1965 and just kind of stuck around. She’s dated, but comfortable, like your grandparents’ house.
Other structures of a certain age make allowances for vanity at some point. Botox, a hair transplant, a tummy tuck. Most of those things aren’t essential procedures (does anyone actually need the standard “enhanced seating and concessions” included in a typical rink renovation?) but most buildings are trying to be seen as younger than they actually are by any of several groups, including fans, tournament committees, and recruits.
Not Rostraver. Inside her hangar-chic exterior, you’ll find plenty of wood paneling, a bathroom declaring that it’s for “gents” without a trace of irony, and seating that consists of loose wooden benches perched on shallow-angle concrete. There are also hand-painted signs everywhere, from the “ICE GARDEN ARENA” above the main entrance to the “DO NOT SHOOT or THROW ANY THING AGAINST THIS WALL” all the way on the other end by the locker rooms.
None of that is retro, a word that implies deliberate activity and new procedures to undo previous ones. She has spent more than half a century being her authentic self. Sometimes that authenticity includes things like a devoted audience of snowmen and other random Christmas decorations that intently watch every game played from the stage just off the lobby end of the ice. It also includes a banquet room that sees far more drylands than receptions.
At most places, those would be called “oddities.” At Rostraver, they’re just kind of normal.
The ACHA counts several venues old and famous enough to be identifiable by a single name among its home rinks – Yost, Matthews, Munn, Wally B – but those places exist primarily for the varsity teams at their respective schools and give in to the pressures of modernization every few years.
There’s another constantly growing category of course, the relatively new palaces that grab headlines because newness and eight-figure price tags are inherently headline-worthy.
Liberty’s LaHaye Ice Center might be the standard bearer, thanks to a colossal top-to-bottom renovation in 2015 that produced 4,000 seats, a four-sided LED scoreboard, a full video production room, luxury suites, and improved locker and concession options – all for lead tenants that are ACHA teams. The McKendree Metro Rec Plex is another jewel, as is Minot State’s Maysa Arena, which was renovated and expanded in 2016. The mostly-for-NCAA set on this side of the ledger includes several arenas recognized as among the finest in college hockey: Miami’s Goggin Ice Arena, Penn State’s Pegula Ice Arena, and Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena.
Fundamentally though, there’s a problem with them. Their differentiation isn’t any unique architectural trait, earned character, or history witnessed, it’s simply the fact that they’re newer and shinier and contain better technology than those built earlier. At least until another one goes up and the sports-industrial complex demands it have a bigger scoreboard, more space in the locker rooms, and stronger wifi while the incumbents have only added a couple layers of grunge and maybe a crack or two. That elite status only sticks if the construction docket remains relatively empty.
Rostraver, though, is undeniably ours, in a way the others aren’t. In a landscape filled with NCAA arenas and faceless, nearly-identical community rinks she’s an outlier, a legitimate entry in that ever-shrinking list of historic hockey destinations, and one whose credibility comes largely without the help of more mainstream sports leagues and their media machine. Others can take The Gut, I’ll wager that Rostraver has done more living in roughly the same amount of time and feels like home to more people.
That last part isn’t really a coincidence, it’s an atmosphere cultivated over the decades by long-time owner Jim Murphy.
“The owner ‘Murph’ – myself and my fiancé literally don’t know his real name, but everyone knows Murph,” Vulcans all-time goal scoring leader Kelsey DeNardo said. “Anyone that grew up playing at Rostraver has their own Murph story. He has been the owner there since anyone can remember and has had an incredible impact on hockey at Rostraver and in the area. He is a unique guy. He keeps the history in the rink throughout, pictures of youth hockey through the years and trophies dating back to the late 70s.”
“Honestly, everyone that works there is very unique, the workers make you feel like part of a community bigger than just your team, they make Rostraver feel like home.”
In 1975, with the hometown Pittsburgh Penguins foundering in red ink, she was a vital local practice option. While Rostraver lives a healthy jaunt down the Monongahela River from the former site of Civic Arena, she was certainly a much more cost-effective option than Canada, where the team had been holding training camp.
A Cal U media guide claims that the quintessential barn hosted a Muhammad Ali amateur fight but, given that the man then known as Cassius Clay began his professional career five years before she was around, it’s a dubious story at best. A more verifiable one involves an eventual winner of the Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophies, Ron Hextall, who started in net for the first time at Rostraver at the age of eight in 1972. A handful of other NHLers have also braved her infamously spartan locker rooms and frigid temperatures as youth players.
Her wheelhouse, though, is the blue-collar hustle and staying in business by working the edges as a place that’s far more Amanda Slezak than Amanda Kessel. There are the three Vulcans women’s and men’s teams of course, but Rostraver is also home ice for numerous youth and high school teams, and a couple of short-lived low-level pro teams. She’s also welcomed arena football, comedy shows, pro wrestling, and concerts – including several notable artists on the left or right tails of the fame curve like Modest Mouse, Slayer, My Chemical Romance, and Machine Gun Kelly.
She’s even seen at least one on-ice engagement, between DeNardo and former men’s player Steve Oberly prior to Cal’s alumni game in 2018.
“My fiancé picked Rostraver and the Cal hockey alumni game because we both played ice hockey at Cal U and it is actually how we met,” DeNardo said. “We met my freshmen year but did not officially start dating until my junior or senior year. About two years later he popped the question at the annual alumni game hosted at Rostraver, it kind of brought the whole thing full circle.”
“We also plan to get some actual engagement pictures done there, because my fiancé grew up playing there for [the Mon Valley Thunder] and I finished my career there.”
Rostraver has met with triumph, and also disaster, never the latter more than on February 14, 2010 when a rink-sized chunk of her wooden barrel-vaulted roof came crashing down under the weight of a couple feet of snow.
Mercyhurst defender Sara Ochterski, then ten years old, was there that day, watching her brother win a tournament championship with the Erie Lions mite team.
“They had gotten off the ice after winning and were celebrating in the locker room, and people heard a slow on and off cracking,” she recalled. “When that continued, everyone started to run out of the building. I remember my dad tossing my brother over his shoulder and carrying him out fully dressed, skates and all. Everyone was outside maybe ten minutes after getting off the ice when the roof collapsed. You can never forget the cracking and popping sounds it made.”
“Everyone made it out, but it was a game that could have easily gone to overtime, and that would have been an entirely different outcome than what thankfully occurred with no injuries. Walking back into that rink to play [today] is just surreal after being there when it collapsed, it’s a chills running down your spine kind of deal.”
Many predicted a permanent demise as the cratered edifice spread news of the misfortune from a hilltop home; Murph managed to have Rostraver back on her feet and re-opened in October.
The roof replacement segment certainly took away some of her celebrated old-time hockey aesthetic, a loss frequently lamented by locals. But, in a bizarre way, the incident crystallized her bona fides as the Hobey Baker of ACHA venues, as she now consists of a modern steel structure spanning most of the length of the ice, awkwardly sandwiched between the original ends of the building, with a bunch of support stumps outside leading to nothing and serving no purpose other than reminding people of what once was.
A lot of times, even in better days, her victories are something less than absolute.
She’s appeared in a major film, as the home to Seth Rogen’s beloved beer league team in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. But it was a role that amounted to one fairly inconsequential (though funny, if you enjoy goalies sucker punching players on breakaways, and honestly, who doesn’t?) 45-second scene with most of the Rostraver iconography barely visible. In fact, she wasn’t playing herself, but rather an imaginary rink roughly 40 minutes away where the Monroeville Zombies did their best to keep the western Pennsylvania tradition of Slap Shot alive.
Nearly a decade later, Rostraver enjoyed a much less anonymous turn in the spotlight as the winner of the 2017 Kraft Hockeyville USA contest, beating out 1300 other arenas (after initially being nominated by Cal’s equipment manager) to win rink upgrades through three rounds of online voting.
“Winning money from Hockeyville was a pretty huge event for the rink, because it needed serious remodeling,” Vulcans forward Mira Rolin said.
To be specific, the successful grassroots effort pulled in $150,000 to complete some piping and lighting fixes, and the NHL chipped in some protective netting and work on the boards. Nevertheless, the league deemed her unfit for Hockeyville’s centerpiece, a preseason game between the Penguins and St. Louis Blues.
Everyone did their honest best to compensate, including using Rostraver for the Pens’ morning skate on gameday and other fan events throughout the week, but the sparkling UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on the other side of Pittsburgh got the NBCSN cameras and the associated eyeballs.
She’s venerated locally, but largely unknown a couple hours from the Monongahela Valley. Her victories are often qualified and her losses can be catastrophic and nearly tragic. She will never be the subject of a commemorative coffee table book like many sports facilities that survive through the decades, even though she retains more of her age than most of them. She’s welcoming and genuine, despite the structure that covers most of her ice surface only having a decade under its belt. She’s seen an immeasurable amount of history under her roofs from future NHL stars to championships, and even to film and music A-listers, but relatively few are aware of any of it.
Rostraver is imperfect, but she’s also perfect in her imperfection.
If Rostraver is the perfect ACHA building, Cal U might be the perfect tenant for Rostraver. Sure, the 2008-09 vintage Vulcans women’s program might be neophytes in Ice Garden terms, but they’ve driven plenty of hard miles as well. There was early success, a couple DVCHC titles, then a couple more after moving over to the CHE, roughly coinciding with five straight nationals appearances between 2012 and 2016.
“We had a great group of girls who just knew how to play hockey,” DeNardo said. We wanted to win and we all just pushed each other. We made efforts for dryland together and did a lot of team bonding and dinners. Many of us were absolute best friends and still are today.”
“I think the fact a lot of us grew up playing together or against each other was a big deal too. Maria Sciacca and I were giant rivals our whole lives and it continued in a positive way when we were on the same team, along with many of the other girls I was rivals with. Megan Cooper and I constantly pushed each other to be our best and play our best on the team. I’m thankful for leaders like Melissa Gleason and Michelle Daley who brought a little bit of an older perspective and really made everyone focus.”
Then their own roof caved in, as a disproportionate amount of the roster responsible for the success moved on and there was nobody to replace them. The Vulcans were forced to take a hiatus during 2016-17, a stunning move given the team’s success. Hiatuses are for irrelevant teams on the brink of oblivion that have been creeping towards the abyss for years, not for one of Division 2’s dominant programs.
“That had been brewing for some time,” DeNardo added. “We did so well for so many years and picked up some recruits along the way, but because we had a great core, recruiting was not a strong suit. Many players actually continued on and went for master’s degrees so we could all keep playing and have a team.”
“Unfortunately, during my senior year recruiting efforts fell extremely short, and our coach quit at season’s end, and that obviously made recruiting that much harder for the following year. Many players that did not graduate also had a bad taste in their mouths and refused to play that following year as well even though they were healthy. That hiatus year was sad. I was going to continue my career with Cal U while I received my master’s that year, but there was not a team.”
Like Murph before it though, the school in one of the most unflinching sections of a famously-unflinching metropolitan area got back on its feet quickly.
The Vulcans managed to put a team on the ice for 2017-18, but were plagued by low player counts and lopsided scores until things started to click into place this year. A bevy of players from the successful Steel City Selects program – Rolin, Jayda Mears, Katie Hill, and Morgan Gloeckl among them – converged on Rostraver, as did a renewed spirit.
“There has been a big improvement since 2017 when we only had eight players and most didn’t know how to play hockey,” Mears said.
“Now we have people transferring here who know how to play hockey. We started from trying to keep up with the other team to actually becoming more serious. Everyone is starting to work harder to win games and practices are taken more seriously.”
The results followed, starting with a stunning season-opening upset of Delaware, a team had hung a 12-3 result on Cal at the 2019 CHE playoffs. Then came the East Coast Showdown, where the Vulcans blitzed DVCHC teams Towson, Montclair State, and Penn to take the showcase title. Then came an important sweep of Pitt, a team threatening to fill the vacuum left by Cal’s absence (both physical and metaphorical) and become the Pittsburgh area’s hegemon.
Then came Ohio State.
In terms of seismic activity, Delaware was bigger. The Blue Hens are a strong program, while OSU has had their own struggles over the last few seasons. But taking down the Buckeyes might prove even more important to the team’s development, simply for the way the Vulcans were pressed and persevered. Iron sharpens iron, and the hottest fires produce the strongest steel, if you enjoy regionally-appropriate platitudes.
Mears, who has spent most of her career among D2’s scoring leaders, and linemate Rolin got to work late in the first period, when Rolin chased down a loose puck, pivoted in the slot, then found Mears collapsing down the back side for a pretty goal. Less than five minutes of game time later, with the second period just beginning, Gloeckl nicely broke up a Buckeye rush, allowing Mears to take it the other way and bury. 2-0 Cal.
While that pair of digits looked good on Rostraver’s shamrock-accented scoreboard, which somehow outlasted the ceiling that once held it up, they belied a game flow that was often carried by Ohio State.
The Buckeyes, like Cal, were short on depth but possessed good talent at the top end (though perhaps not quite as good as the person who printed OSU’s NCAA team roster in the program thought), and were able to erase the Vulcans’ lead just as quickly as it was drawn. First, St. Louis Lady Blues product Mikayla Richter took it coast to coast herself, then Clancy Chichetti converted Emma Brown’s setup to pull things level though to the end of the second period – and the third.
Meanwhile, despite allowing the two goals, Hill was stellar in keeping the game within reach. She closed with 45 saves on 47 OSU shots.
“It was a back and forth game, and we worked well as a team,” Rolin said. “We knew that was an important game, because they badly outshot us [during a 2-2 tie between the teams in December].”
“But we had timely scoring, and Katie really stood on her head and kept us in the game, like she always does.”
In the last minute of overtime, Brown tried to carry the puck out of the Buckeye zone. Mears cut her off just inside the line on the right side, then navigated to the slot and took on both Ohio State defenders at once. With Cal’s men and Penn State Altoona looking on in full uniform while waiting to take the ice, Mears twisted her scarlet-clad opponents even tighter than the rods of the black metal partition that guards the skate rental counter out in the lobby, somehow emerged with the puck on the other side of the traffic jam, and slammed it home.
As a goal horn punctuated the Vulcans’ latest big win, Rostraver echoed it off of a steel roof, a monument to her near-death experience, and back towards the ice. The old lady has seen a lot and certainly couldn’t be blamed for some indifference towards the latest of thousands of early February games, but that goal and Cal U’s own ongoing resurrection had earned her approval.