Bob Carolyn laces up his hockey skates for yet another one of many Friday afternoon hockey scrimmages held at The Rink Exchange. Carolyn, 82, is one of 25 or so middle-aged and older men who filed into the ice rink that Friday afternoon wearing business casual clothes and holding duffel bags the size of small children. Outside the rink these men are dentists, grandpas or businessmen, but on Friday afternoons they’re boys who want to skate on some ice and hit each other with sticks.
“I can remember, particularly after the rink opened, I would have, you know, just a horrible day of work and aches and pains and just tired,” Carolyn says. “But as soon as I stepped out on the ice all the aches and pains just went away.”
Carolyn was one of the first people to skate at The Rink Exchange at the Lane County Event Center. He has been there since the day it opened — Dec. 22, 1989. If the ice rink isn’t able to get the funding and contract it needs to survive, he could be one of the last.
On Oct. 15, The Rink Exchange, which is owned by Hockey Oregon, sent a letter to Lane County Board of Commissioners asking for support in replacing decades old ice-making chillers, coils, heat exchanges and various other equipment that has not been replaced in its 34 years of operation. The letter also asks the county to change The Rink Exchange’s lease to a long-term agreement rather than year-to-year lease, so that remodeling the rink will be worth the time and money.
One proposal is to allow The Rink Exchange to lease the livestock building during renovations, but Lane County Fair Manager Corey Buller says the county can’t make any decisions involving the lease of the livestock building until Lane County commissioners decide whether the Eugene Emeralds are moving their stadium to Lane County Events Center.
To understand how The Rink Exchange ended up in this position you need to know a little bit of its complicated history.
The Rink Exchange, formerly known as Lane County Ice Arena, has been the home to a variety of ice sports clubs and teams in Lane County. The University of Oregon Ducks club hockey team has played at the rink since the rink’s opening, the Eugene Figure Skating Club graced the rink in 1991, and a junior league hockey team, the Eugene Generals, dominated the rink in 2005.
The Rink Exchange was owned by the county from its opening in 1989 until 2010, when Lane County commissioners decided that maintaining an ice rink was getting to be too expensive. That’s where current General Manager of The Rink Exchange Flint Doungchak enters the rink.
Doungchak has been entranced by hockey since the first L.A. Kings game he went to when he was 10. He says after that game, he was hooked, and he played all throughout high school and at the University of Oregon. When Doungchak moved to Eugene for school, one of the first things he did was grab a phone book and look for the closest ice rink.
“I literally jumped on the bus, went to the rink and that same day was asked to coach youth hockey,” Doungchak says. He started volunteer coaching that day and never stopped.
Doungchak worked his daytime job as a software engineer but coached a wide range of youth hockey by night. When Ken Owens, founder of the Generals, approached him about working as a general manager for the team, Doungchak wasn’t initially sold.
Doungchak says, “I told him hockey was my passion, but not something I could make a living at and a pretty dramatic salary difference, but that I would help start the Generals since I had so much experience coaching.” He gave Owens 18 months. As it turned out, he managed the Generals for 15 years. The Generals have taken a break since 2019 due to a lack of nearby playing partners.
In 2010, “when the county announced they were closing the rink, Ken specifically said to me, ‘Hey, it’s either the Generals operate the rink or it closes. What do you want to do?’ — and so we did it,” Doungchak says.
Doungchak and Owens had little to no experience running or maintaining a facility of that caliber. He recalls the horror of driving a Zamboni for the first time and the learning curve that comes with figuring out how to keep the ice cool and dry.
Doungchak and his team also had to figure out how to make the ice. Doungchak says that he and his team cover the rink with thin sheets of premade ice and then spray that down with a hose to create the ice. After the ice is painted white, then more clear sheets of ice are put on top until it is an inch thick.
“I was a software engineer. I was staring at a computer all day and maybe talking to people. I would say me turning a wrench was very rare,” Doungchak says. “And now that’s not the case at all.”
He recalls the first year of just figuring out what was already broken while also trying to fix what was actively breaking. Doungchak says he really owes it to community members for volunteering their time to help when it was needed most, such as hockey families coming out to help repaint the building, and local vendors that can help fix their forklift and refrigeration.
“I remember when it snowed a few years back and we were closed because there was six inches of snow on the ground and me and Toshia [Holden, operations manager] and Daniel [Gomez, facilities director] were here just emptying pipes so they wouldn’t burst, but then people started showing up to skate,” Doungchak says. “It really was just like, wow, it is 7 degrees out here and people still want to be here.”
Now, The Rink Exchange community is once again rallying behind Doungchak by setting up a fundraiser to help pay the costs of renovating the ice-making chillers that make the ice cold as well as the coils that move the cooling air from the chillers evenly around the rink. He says they need to raise roughly $500,000 in order to replace the refrigeration unit and coils. So far, The Rink Exchange has raised nearly $80,000 from large donors, and the small donor campaign is opening up “very soon.”
Doungchak says construction would have to begin in March because he fears the ice will melt during the warmer months. During construction The Rink Exchange would either lease the livestock building to allow them to operate as an ice facility in the meantime or close the rink from March until August for construction.
However, if the Eugene Emeralds build a new stadium at the Lane County fairgrounds, Buller says, the livestock building will need to be demolished. Until the county makes a decision about the new stadium, he adds, The Rink Exchange renovation is essentially at a standstill.
Allan Benavides, general manager of the Eugene Emeralds, says that to his knowledge the new stadium should not impact The Rink Exchange at all, and that he is hopeful the two can coexist within the Lane County Events Center.
Doungchak says he isn’t too worried about gathering the funds to replace the refrigeration unit and coils. He says that he thinks once the rink can prove that it has raised at least half of the money necessary for renovations, then the county will start to take their requests more seriously. So far, the county has not responded to Doungchak and Rink Exchange’s letter about extending its lease.
As Owens watches the old men trickle onto the rink he can’t help but feel optimistic that the community will come together despite all the turmoil. “It’s really just another bump in the road,” he says. “We have a lot of good folks here from tons of different walks of life. I mean, you can’t even hardly put your finger on all of them. And they have one thing in common, and that’s skating here.”