Northtown Center changes not for the better

A little while back plans were put in place to roll out significant improvements to the “feature rink” at the Northtown Center in Amherst. The renovations were going to focus on the antiquated design of the benches and penalty boxes while also installing new boards and seamless glass.

The new benches, boards and glass at the Northtown Center. Not pictured: Horrible attacking zone dimensions.

UB Bull Run happened to have some specifics on the project when it was announced and I had the opportunity to play on the rink for the first time since the project wrapped last night. I can unequivocally say that the cosmetic improvements were great, but the playing surface was sacrificed as a result. Based on the way the rink is laid out, it’s a shame that a junior program and competitive collegiate team will use this rink as their home for the coming winter.

The most noticeable difference is the gleaming new boards and glass. Seamless glass runs between the hashmarks with traditional, blue trimmed stanchioned glass rings around behind each net. In addition, the penalty boxes and benches were expanded from their previously miniscule dimensions to just kind of small dimensions. The boards are fresh and look great and the entire package will look very cool for UB and Jr. Sabres home games as the blue stanchions will look right at home. However, the new boards provided the opportunity to alter the layout of the rink and those in charge of the Northtown Center took the bait. I wish they hadn’t.

In case you’re not familiar, the Feature Rink is the original ice pad that pre-dates the Northtown Center as a whole. It is a small surface with a full concrete set of seating that includes the benches and the base of the arena itself. What it resulted in was a tiny rink with unforgiving boards, uncomfortable benches and phone booths for penalty boxes.

Changing the benches and boards was a great move. It eliminates the ridiculously tiny penalty boxes, gives the players on the bench a little more leg room and it creates a safer set of boards to play with. Of course, seamless glass is a famous culprit of separated shoulders, but that’s no biggie. The major changes that were made are indeed welcome. The arena looks nicer and it is improved. The changes to the surface are the issue.

For whatever reason, those in charge of this project decided that the new boards allowed them to decrease the amount of space behind the nets. For the record, the previous layout provided a ton of space below the goal line. However, the new layout shrunk that area and added the extra ice to the top of the offensive zone. Basically they dragged the goal line and circles down while extending the area between the circles in the blueline. Speaking as a goaltender, it completely sucks.

Any attacking player who gets inside the circles immediately enters a no-mans land for angles as a single stride drastically changes the options that player has. Get below the hash and all bets are off. The little amount of space behind the net not only alters the passing options for attacking players, it makes it easy for awkward angles in all areas of the ice. Pretty much anywhere below the hash floats in a grey area between a dead angle and scoring area.

I’d estimate that there is only about 18 inches between the bottom of the circles and the goal line while vast swaths of white ice exist between the circles and blue line. Extending this area was just plain dumb. In an effort to create a larger attacking zone, all that was accomplished was to exponentially affect an already dimensionally challenged rink in a negative fashion.

I can’t even imagine the changes are all that great for skaters, either. There is no room to work in the corners or behind the net and the faceoff circles are so low that much of the attacking area is clogged with bodies. It didn’t seem like it would be all that difficult to move the goal line up by a foot or so and reclaim some of the lost ice that was taken by this decision in the coming months.

Unless a solution to the brutal dimensions can be solved, this project will be little more than putting lipstick on a pig. The Feature Rink went from a small, awkward ice surface with awful boards and benches to a good looking arena with a terribly designed surface. Hopefully someone notices and brings about the necessary changes.

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