LYNCHBURG — It was 2002 when New York native, Tatiana Payne first visited her older brother at Liberty University, where he played ice hockey.
Not long after the visit, she heard the university might build an ice rink.
“Hearing that there was going to be a rink built is what clinched it for me that I wanted to come here,” said Payne, now Liberty University Club Sports Associate Athletic Director, Senior Woman Administrator.
“I came in 2004 in faith that that was going to happen,” said Payne.
Start talking to those involved in skating in Central Virginia and you’ll learn that Payne’s story is not uncommon.
Like bees to honey
“Most of what you see in this area is because our rink was built. A lot of people who have a skating background have moved here because there are opportunities now. . .. For the most part there really wasn’t much for figure skating around here at all outside of like Richmond,” Payne said.
Liberty started a Learn to Skate program in 2006, the year the LaHaye Ice Center opened. (It’s named after Tim LaHaye, the late minister and author of the “Left Behind” series who was a Liberty donor). Almost 100 kids joined during its first two years.
Today Liberty has three men’s hockey teams, two women’s hockey teams, a figure skating team, a synchronized skating team and the region has two youth hockey leagues, an adult hockey league, Learn to Play programs, and for a while, had its own figure skating club.
The rink is in use almost 20 hours a day, according to Rena Leone, head coach of LU’s women’s hockey team and the woman responsible for figuring out how to get everyone time on the ice.
Some days the rink opens as early as 5:30 a.m. and often it stays open until midnight.
Being university-backed is what has made all of the growth possible, said Leone said, who has worked at more than five rinks in three different states.
“We have so many more resources than other rinks,” Leone said.
If The LaHaye Ice Center isn’t the core reason ice hockey is flourishing in this area, it’s certainly one of the main drivers behind it, Joe Rosenberg, president of the Roanoke-based Valley Youth Hockey Association said.
“The facility itself has been a catalyst for ice hockey in the area. … I would say regionally not just in Lynchburg, but regionally,” Rosenberg said.
In Roanoke where the Junior Dawgs are based, there has been an explosion in youth hockey. Rosenberg said more than 325 kids between the ages of 3 and 16 play on one of their youth teams or in the Learn to Play program. The Lynchburg Youth Hockey Association is booming as well with five teams and rosters that now carry 18 players instead of 12.
“I would say the LaHaye had an important part in developing the ice skating and ice hockey in the region,” Rosenberg said, noting that this year the Lynchburg Hockey Association and Roanoke Valley Youth Hockey Association started a joint AA team for 13 and 14-year olds.
It’s because of LaHaye, where Rosenberg said game tickets and concessions are affordable, that more and more people are being exposed to ice sports firsthand.
“They see that and they want to try it out and be a part of it,” Rosenberg said.
Grow your own
That’s certainly true for LU students Marissa Harter, 20, and Rachel Anderson, 21.
“I just love [ice skating] because it’s almost like an art form,” said Harter.
As children, Harter and Anderson both participated in LU’s Learn to Skate program, which teaches children between the ages of 3 and 17 everything from snowplow stops to dance sequences.
Later they joined the Lynchburg Figure Skating Club, which would hold theater performances on the ice. Both women went on to join an LU skating team and now help teach Learn to Skate.
“Honestly I don’t know if I’d be where I am today without ice skating,” Anderson said. “…I owe a lot of who I am to skating.”
Anderson and Harter said the sport and the camaraderie are what keeps them involved.
“I just feel like we’ve grown a lot. … It’s just because we have such a great community,” Harter said.
Dawn Harter, head coach of the LU Figure Skating team, Learn to Skate coordinator — and yes, Marissa’s mom — said the university’s figure skating program has gone from three or four skaters that first year to 22 girls on her roster this year.
“We all skate to glorify God so that puts it in perspective,” Harter said, pointing out that the back of the figure skating team shirts this year read: “Mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance.”
“It was really important when I came here and started to develop these programs. … I wanted to make sure we created a culture here, that was founded on our Christian beliefs and we treat each other with respect and we uplift each other, instead of putting each other down. And I think that that has drawn a lot of people” Payne said.
It has worked.
The Hockey House Podcast hosted a Battle of the Barns online survey last month to find out which rink ice fans most like. Then, just before hockey season kicked off this month the @hockeyhousepod Instagram account announced: “Congratulations to the Liberty Flames and the LaHaye Ice Center on being voted the best place to play in the ACHA!”
The American Collegiate Hockey Association is the governing body for more than 461 college- and university-affiliated hockey teams across 48 states and two Canadian provinces.
“Here, I think because we’re under the umbrella of Liberty University, we follow the guidelines of the university. We are treating each other the way that we’re supposed to be treating one another,” Dawn Harter said. “Everybody’s an important entity and they have a place on our team for a reason.
Trying to get on the ice these days is nearly impossible unless you are participating in an LU-sponsored program. UVa’s figure skating and hockey teams and VMIs hockey team use the rink and there is so much interest in the adult league — The Rusty Blades Ice Hockey Club of Southwest Virginia — that the club has waiting lists for games being played through April of 2022.