It has become harder in Middle Tennessee to find available ice rinks for youth hockey — reaching a point in which existing sheets of ice are regularly put to use until past midnight and prompting even Bridgestone Arena to occasionally open its pro-caliber rink to youth games.
Local hockey families say they don’t see an immediate way to meet the demands for ice time, although they will go to great lengths to find space. One piece of the puzzle is a far cry from Bridgestone: a very small ice rink in Franklin known as The Lab.
It’s near downtown Franklin, but tucked in the backside of an unassuming warehouse shared by a horse veterinarian.
“You really kind of have to go out of your way to play hockey,” said Brentwood dad Dawson Moffitt, a former Canadian pond hockey player.
Recalling his first visit, he said it got off to a shaky start.
"I was sitting probably out around the Sonic with my GPS, calling, saying, 'I can’t find this!' "
He’s not alone. Tom Murphy, director of The Lab, gets all kinds of similarly disoriented phone calls. But once players and families arrive, there’s no mistaking the energy inside the chilly warehouse, where Murphy is responsible for a steady stream of classic rock that pumps along with the scrapes of skates and cacophony of slapshots.
“When you find it, it looks a little sketchy," said hockey mom Debbie Bowman, of Brentwood, whose son skates weekly at The Lab to augment the sparse practice times that he gets with his team. "When you walk in, it’s obviously well taken care of."
Bowman said that when her hockey-loving family moved from Pittsburgh, they chose their neighborhood so they could be near the former A-Game facility, which abruptly closed in 2016.
That closure, which triggered protests and a failed scramble to try to keep the facility going, exacerbated the region’s ice time quandary.
“It’s pretty ridiculous around here,” Bowman said. “I’m actually stunned that there’s not some ice in Williamson County … with all the money, the wealth, that’s out here.”
Citing the slog of rush hour traffic, Bowman prefers not to travel to the state-of-the-art Ford Ice Center in Antioch and has instead shifted to The Lab, which offers once, twice or three-times-weekly memberships.
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Bowman’s challenge epitomizes the situation in Middle Tennessee. The most promising development is a new community ice center in the works for Bellevue. The general manager of the existing Ford Ice Center said he’s hopeful to open the Bellevue facility in late fall.
In the meantime, while The Lab has expanded its hours, it still can’t meet much of the demand. It’s too small to simulate games, so instead, mostly Murphy runs training drills for motivated players who want to work on their skills beyond the limited team practices at the larger community rinks.
Bowman said the focus is intense, especially with 29-year-old Murphy — a former junior hockey and collegiate player — at the helm.
“Tom, in my opinion, is really what makes the Lab special. He’s young, he’s high-energy. He plays rock ‘n’ roll that most of our 11 and 12-year-olds have never heard before,” Bowman said. "He makes them work … And if they’re not willing to work, he gets them off the ice. He’ll kick ‘em off the ice. So they work really hard for Tom."
Murphy is at total ease among the players, familiar with their tendencies on ice — and even their gear. At a recent practice, he ribbed a player for his former helmet (“That looked like poop on your head.”) and the replacement: “He looks phenomenal and he’s ready to rock ‘n’ roll!”
In some ways, Murphy sees the size limitations of The Lab as a benefit. He said teams place such a high value on their time together on full-size sheets of ice that they can’t afford to put much time into practicing finer skills. So that’s where The Lab focuses.
Still, he does feel the ice time pinch — from the rising demand at The Lab to the late-night scheduling that he endures to play in a local men’s league, often arriving home after midnight.
“With the success of the Preds,” he says with a big laugh, “it’s not helping!”
“It’s a great thing — it’s a wonderful thing that the Preds are doing well. But, with that, the popularity of hockey is booming, and with two arenas and four ice sheets, it’s not enough,” Murphy said.
Even the Lab almost fell out of rotation last year. It was put up for sale and purchased by local hockey parents. Co-owner Brian Cummings said he was motivated to keep the space open to motivated players. He’s looking to expand hours, but only if he can secure high-quality trainers.
“I think we fielded more requests than we can handle,” he said.
For those who have found The Lab, like the Moffitt family, every ice minute counts.
The twin 9-year-olds— sister Ainsley and brother Keaton — have been skating since learning at age 3. At the time, they were living in Columbus, Ohio, where Dawson Moffitt says youth hockey boomed around their NHL team.
Ainsley describes The Lab as “small.”
“But you can still skate hard,” she said. “And the coaches train you very hard.”
By the end of the hour — which concludes with a series of skating races for conditioning — the twins return to their dad with flushed pink cheeks and sweaty gear.
As late finishers, they had to clean up before their coach could roll The Lab’s makeshift Jeep-turned-ice-resurfacer over the ice.
“Last time I did the race, I was first,” Keaton said. “And this is my first time picking up pucks.”
“It’s not mine,” Ainsely said.
Through the grit, they also sported smiles as part of a family that’s comfortable on the ice, and hoping for more of it.