From the outside, things haven't changed much at Lockport's historic Kenan Arena.
In fact, if you could go back in time and bring back your favorite loved ones, they'd tell you that things look exactly the same today as they did when the building was first built in the late 1960s — a giant, clean, well kept, centrally-located sports facility.
And while the sights and many of the sounds inside the Kenan Arena remain intact — kids everywhere, laughing, smiling, chit-chatting, parents holding hands with or holding their youngest ones, little tykes grabbing a bite to eat at Rick Reid's popular concession stand, a family atmosphere throughout the building — there are also many things that have required the historic building to change or transitioned to.
Credit Rick Ruhmel, now in his 18th year as the facility's sports and recreation manager, with being a big part of that successful transition, from one of the only indoor ice hockey rinks in the immediate area 50 years ago to a non-ice facility today that offers a wide range of family-oriented events and programs, from circuses to kickboxing to soccer, lacrosse, roller hockey, baseball, softball and more.
Of those, soccer remains the arena's top sport, drawing an average of 400 children each of three annual coed sessions, one each in the summer, fall and winter. In addition, there are outdoor soccer leagues in the summer and other popular programs like Jeff Hulshoff's annual Lockport Soccer Camp, activities that are drawing numbers that now rival the traditionally most popular indoor soccer session in the fall.
“Soccer was already a well-established program here when I started,” Ruhmel said Friday. “The first soccer programs started in 1983 or 84, coexisting with the ice hockey, so it had been around a while by the time I started here in 2001. My biggest challenge at the start was from a logistical standpoint was getting everything over to be computerized. The program itself has not not changed much. There was a large number of people who did their homework when they started this.”
The Arena's most popular soccer years were in 1999 and 2000, Ruhmel said, but though numbers have not yet been that high, they've remained consistently high for the past 10 to 15 years.
Soccer moms today, like Andrea Brown of Green Street, are busy tying sneakers before games, rather than ice skates and pads. Parents watch the games from either bleachers or chairs, shouting the usual words or encouragement you hear at youth games.
“Don't throw it there,” Eric Brown yelled out to his 8-year-old son Wyatt, playing in the arena's Annex Room, another artificial-turf indoor soccer field in a smaller room adjacent to the large indoor rink. Wyatt was holding the ball high over his head for a soccer “throw-in” but facing the wrong direction.
“Throw it this way,” his dad said, pointing towards the field of play. Polite applause broke out whenever a goal was scored, but the youth game moved along quickly with every child playing an equal amount of time.
Ruhmel knows all about the arena's glory ice days of the past, having played youth hockey there growing up. He thinks one of the big transition years for the facility during his tenure was about seven or eight years ago, when both the Annex Room first opened and a new turf was installed in the largest indoor soccer rink (85-by-190 feet, just a few feet shy of an NHL-sized hockey rink).
Under the turf on the big rink is a hard surface that allows for another sport that continues to grow in popularity — roller hockey — to be played at the Kenan. And the Annex renovations allows for more than one activity to be going on at the same time. On Thursday night, for example, the arena hosted both a Lockport Soccer Club training session and several youth soccer games simultaneously.
“When the ice went, Niagara-Orleans BOCES came in and renovated the Annex Room for conference rooms, then when BOCES moved out and onto Route 31, that's when we made the decision to make that into more athletic space, which opened it up for more soccer, as well as training by the Lockport Soccer Club, baseball, softball training and so many other things.”
One of the many reasons the Kenan soccer program is so popular is its cost — just $55 to $80 per session. Parents interested in signing up for the upcoming summer soccer session at the Kenan can do so beginning in April. Age group divisions vary from four-year-olds to teens — 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 11-13, 14-18.
Interested parents can call 433-2619 or go to kenancenter.org.
Follow Union-Sun & Journal veteran sports reporter John D'Onofrio on Twitter at @JohnD'Onofrio7.