NORWALK -- With a vibrant lighting system and new steel beams resting overhead, Ryan Hughes peered down last week from a balcony overlooking the National Hockey League-regulation 85-by-200 foot rink that was just a few sheets of ice and a coat of paint away from being complete.
What served as a home for Nash Engineering until 1995 and most recently was transformed into a movie set for the romantic comedy "Hope Springs" was quickly taking shape as a state-of-the-art hockey facility right in the heart of Norwalk.
Later this month, the SoNo Ice House will officially open its doors at 300 Wilson Ave. to the public under the direction of the 31-year-old Hughes, marking a homecoming of sorts for a city that's been starving for a rink of its own since the closure of Crystal Rink in the 1970s.
The sparkling new rink will offer a bevy of programs including youth and adult recreational leagues, figure skating programs, private and group lessons, and perhaps most notably, it will house the city's first hockey team in a half-century, the Connecticut Oilers of the Empire Junior Hockey League.
"We're focused on the learn-to-skate, the development and then the junior team. In between, we want every youth hockey program possible to come use our facility," Hughes said.
Hughes, a lifelong resident of Stamford, will serve as president of the Oilers, Stephan Seeger will be general manager and Eric Lind, who was drafted by the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins in 1997 and most recently was an assistant coach with the Yale University men's hockey program, will coach the team.
The Oilers--named after the Norwalk Home Oilers semi-pro team of the 1950s and 60s--will field a three-tier program with an A team (ages 17-20), B team (16-19) and U16 team (15-16), and will give some of Fairfield County's elite hockey players an attractive option right in their back yard.
Rosters were selected after tryouts in April and the team will christen its new rink on its home opener on Sept. 8.
"It allows kids to not have to go away to prep school and it allows them to live at home and to still get the best hockey experience and development. A lot of kids are going all over the country for this and now they don't have to leave home, which is one of the reasons Eric and I really did it," said Hughes, who mentioned that tryouts drew players from as far as Vancouver, British Columbia.
Hughes said that the Oilers' focus will be to develop players for the next level and he expects to draw "a lot" of college scouts to the program's three teams.
"(The players are) going to be on the ice four days a week with practices and then two to three games a week," Hughes said. "They're on the ice almost seven days a week. They really get that development, as opposed to high school.
"It's a college feel."
Players from outside the area will live with host families and attend local high schools, and while at the Ice House, they'll be treated to some of the finest amenities around. Nine pro-style locker rooms have been constructed, space has been cleared for a sport-specific gymnasium, and work on a 60-by-120 foot training rink--adjacent to the NHL-sized one--is all but finished.
The Ice House will also be the new home rink for the Norwalk-Brien McMahon High co-op team, St. Luke's and the Wilton girls team.
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