The last time hockey fever took over Provo was during the 2002 Winter Olympics, when a total of 131,067 fans witnessed games in the Peaks Ice Arena.
The BYU men’s hockey team and local high school teams now play in the arena. A youth hockey program, the Polar Bears, has been thriving.
As of Thursday, the arena has a new tenant: The Provo Riverblades.
The Riverblades are an elite level U-20 junior hockey team, the highest level of amateur hockey in North America. Players from the U.S., Canada and Europe are recruited to the program with an eye toward earning college scholarships or landing spots on foreign professional leagues.
The Riverblades will compete in the U.S. Premier Hockey League Mountain Conference against the Ogden Mustangs, the Pueblo (Colo.) Bulls and the Utah Outliers (West Jordan), among others.
Riverblades general manager and head coach Mike Callan figures getting players to Utah is an easy sell.
“This will be an awesome place for junior hockey players to develop and grown,” Callan said. “Recruiting players comes from multiple dynamics but it’s all about selling the community and development options. It’s about how we’re going to help them become better players and better people.”
The 25-man roster will be in place in the latter part of August. Athletes will stay with host families around the valley. The Riverblades will play a 50-game schedule with 22 games at the Peaks Ice Arena. The home opener is scheduled for Sept. 19 against Ogden and the championships will be held in Boston in mid-March.
An announcement of the entire schedule is expected by July 1.
“Kids come here with a dream and a goal,” said Riverblades managing partner Kevin McCloskey. “It’s a really good class of hockey. I think Provo fans will be pleased with the speed and the hitting. This level of hockey is as good as the city of Provo has seen since the Olympics.”
Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi was scheduled to attend Thursday’s news conference but is awaiting the results of a coronavirus test. She is the running mate of Utah gubernatorial candidate Jon Huntsman, who tested positive for the virus earlier this week.
“In the absence of sports due to COVID-19, it’s particularly exciting to announce a new community sports offering for Provo and Utah County,” Kaufusi said in a news release. “The Provo Riverblades have already shown their strong community support by choosing a name reflective of our identity and history. In addition to the entertainment, we expect to see a positive economic impact in Provo. A 22-home game schedule equates to visiting teams and spectators staying in hotels, dining, shopping and enjoying all our city has to offer.”
Provo Deputy Mayor Isaac Paxman filled in for Kaufusi at the news conference.
“This team has hit the lottery in where to land,” he said. “There can’t be a more beautiful setting for an ice arena.”
Callan most recently helped build the Chatham University Division III program from scratch but has a variety of coaching and management experience that will aid in his recruiting efforts.
“There are multiple ways to navigate recruiting,” Callan said. “Typically you can contact youth teams and there are myriad of showcases and tournament events where you can get out and see players. You can reach out on social media. There are advisors and family members who work with players to help them move on to the next level.”
Callan is immediately headed out of town to continue his recruitment of players in an attempt to get competitive in a hurry.
“It’s challenging at every level of sports to recruit top end athletes,” he said. “I think the dynamics here give me a leg up. My past experience at the college level brings a network. I have established relationships in the hockey community that will help.”
McCloskey announced that Orem Owlz assistant general manager Julie Hatch has been hired as the business operations manager in charge of game day organization and housing for the players. She will retain her job with the Owlz.
The Riverblades introduced their new hashtag — #riverpower – along with social media presence on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
For more information, hockey fans are directed to the team’s website at www.provoriverblades.com.