The group behind a campaign to build an $8 million indoor ice-hockey facility in Pickerington is moving forward with a 3-on-3 tournament and will hold tryouts in August for the first locally based youth hockey team.
Since mid-March, the COVID-19 coronavirus has brought many activities and plans to a screeching halt, including the Center Ice Foundation of Central Ohio's ongoing bid to raise funds to build an indoor ice-hockey facility on 8 acres of undeveloped land owned by the city of Pickerington at 1111 and 1113 Gray Drive.
The pandemic wiped out the foundation's plans for a Kentucky Derby-themed fundraiser in May and forced the volunteer-led nonprofit organization to pivot its strategy.
In response, the group held a virtual video-game hockey tournament in May that drew more than 200 participants, and after the Ohio Department of Health and Gov. Mike DeWine loosened restrictions on events and athletics play in June, the foundation quickly organized its second Center Ice Summer Classic, a 3-on-3 hockey tournament, with proceeds benefiting the foundation's mission to bring an ice rink to Pickerington.
"We've got teams ranging from mites all the way up to adults," said Kirstin Watts, Center Ice Foundation of Central Ohio founder and president.
"For a lot of folks that are playing in it, this will be the first time they'll be on the ice since COVID.
"We definitely are excited to get back on the ice and give people the opportunity to play the game we love."
Mite and Squirt divisions will be played Saturday, July 25, and Sunday, July 26, at the Battery Hockey Academy, 8515 Rausch Drive, in Plain City. Pee Wee, Bantam, High School and Adult divisions will play Aug. 1-2 at OhioHealth Chiller Easton, 3600 Chiller Lane, Columbus.
"It's going to look different," Watts said. "We're having registration outside; coaches will be in masks, and (players) won't be in locker rooms. They'll be getting ready out of trunks of cars."
Watts said last year's Summer Classic had 24 teams, and this year's has 36. If not for 6-foot-distancing requirements, she said, there could've been up to 50 teams taking part.
No spectators will be permitted at the July 25-26 tournament, and only one parent per participating player will be allowed in the Chiller.
"We will livestream on Facebook and have food trucks outside," Watts said.
Due in part to the pandemic's impact on social events, Watts said, fundraising has been limited in recent months.
She said the foundation, to date, has raised a little more than $100,000 of its $8 million goal, and it's still working with corporations and organizations for larger sponsorships and donations.
Additionally, foundation volunteers are considering bringing back the virtual video-game tournament in the future and turning it into a fundraiser.
"At the end of the day, it's about promoting the sport of hockey," Watts said. "If somebody wants to give us money, great, we'll take it.
"But we're really sensitive to the fact that many people's livelihoods are on the line (because of the COVID-19 pandemic)."
Although fundraising is progressing slowly, Watts said, a major step forward was achieved recently when the organization was able to sponsor the first Pickerington-based youth hockey team.
It will sponsor a team in the 14-and-under division in the Prowlers Hockey Association Club, and is hosting tryouts for the team Aug. 13 and 14 at Chiller Easton.
Watts said the foundation hopes the team will provide opportunities for youths in Pickerington and surrounding communities to play hockey and potentially build momentum for Pickerington Schools to have an organized hockey program that competes at the varsity level with such districts as Dublin, Olentangy and Upper Arlington.
"This will be for Bantam levels -- kids that were born in 2006 and 2007," she said. "It is the first youth hockey team ever based in Pickerington.
"It's a first step in the direction of a varsity program at the high schools."
Watts said the Prowlers team would feature 17 to 18 players and be coached by her husband, Christopher Watts, who is a USA Hockey Level 4 certified coach who has coached youth hockey for five years.
Once the team is in place, Watts said, she hopes concerns around the pandemic will recede and youth hockey programs can carry on competitively.
That is also when fundraising efforts for an indoor facility will pick up, she said.
"We're seeking long-term investor partners, and we're still having those conversations," she said. "I think we all have to be resilient and adapt.
"My oldest son (Ian, 13) graduates high school in 2025, and my youngest son (Conor) will be 10 in August. What motivates me is that (Ian) would be able to take the ice before he graduates from Pickerington High School Central."