OAK PARK — As the Oak Park-River Forest Hockey Club took to the ice Sunday night at Ridgeland Common, varsity team manager Jo Bond-Ostler said the boys are making themselves at home at Paul Hruby Ice Arena.
“The locker rooms already smell like hockey,” she said proudly.
After a season of playing home games in Bensenville while the Ridgeland Common facility underwent a $22 million renovation, the OPRF Hockey Club teams returned home Sunday night to host the Wheaton West Wildhawks.
Both teams beat the Wildhawks, with the JV Huskies winning 5-0, and the varsity squad 6-5.
The project — which also included major updates and additions to the facility’s pool — began in March 2013 and the building re-opened in June.
Building supervisor Julieus Thomas said the project included a complete building reconstruction, making the facility LEED-certified; expanding the ice rink to official size; and installing new locker rooms.
Wooden benches replaced aluminum stands and were moved to the opposite side of the ice, he said, and the rink is set lower into the ground, offering fans a better view.
A band from School of Rock Oak Park — wearing School of Rock hockey jerseys — performed the national anthem for each game and played between games. Fans filled the stands for the first home games, and cheered loudly as varsity players walked by prior to their game.
“It’s one of the greatest experiences of my hockey career,” Mike DeAlba said emphatically, adding that other than professional ice, it’s the best rink he’s played on.
After a season of “home” games and late-night practices in another town, parents, players and coaches were happy to return to Oak Park.
“What’s so nice is we’ve come back home,” said mom Anne Burkett.
Frank Pospisil, the club’s marketing director, said they’re taking to social media to spread the word about the club and continue to fill the stands. They held a T-shirt giveaway Sunday night and plan to do something new every month. An alumni game is always held in December, Pospisil said.
“We’re going to continue doing things throughout the season,” he said. “Keep it interesting and keep it fresh.”
Varsity coach Dave Dyson said it’s a lot easier to pull fans in when they can walk, ride a bike or drive just a few minutes to watch the games. And, he said, it’s probably the nicest hockey rink in the state.
“I could write a book on it, it means so much to us,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier to be home.”
Dyson said they’ve worked hard to create a positive team culture, by being good stewards of the game and of Oak Park, which he’s hoping results in on-the-ice success.