TELEGRAM – Bobby Butler has played in countless ice arenas across the world during his amateur and professional hockey career.
But one holds a special place in the current Hartford Wolf Pack right winger’s heart.
Butler – who has hoisted the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup championship trophy and donned the red, white and blue as a member of the 2018 U.S. Olympic hockey team – recalls walking through the New England Sports Center with his father, John, while it was under construction in early 1994 and dreaming of playing hockey professionally.
“It was just the bones,” said Butler, who had stints with four National Hockey League teams, of the facility. “It’s meant everything to my career. It’s helped me get where I am. Without the rinks, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”
The towering New England Sports Center has had a similar effect on the city of Marlboro in the nearly 25 years since it opened. The rink has attracted numerous regional, national and international hockey and figure skating championships, helping bring between $15 million and $25 million annually in hotel room sales, meals and other business to the city and region, according to center officials.
“It’s definitely put Marlboro on the map as far as an amateur sports destination,” said Mary Simone, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Marlboro. “There’s a reason to come to Marlboro.”
The sports center will celebrate its 25th anniversary next November.
Larue Renfroe’s passion for hockey dates back more than four decades, when he first got involved in youth hockey by coaching his son.
“I got hooked on the game myself,” said Renfroe, a native of New Orleans. “It’s addictive.”
As a coach, Renfroe eventually became in charge of scheduling ice time for practices and games. Renfroe, who founded Assurance Technology in 1969, frequently ran into trouble as Marlboro’s Navin Arena and Concord’s Valley Sports Rink were packed with full schedules.
The problem became even more challenging in the summer of 1992, when Renfroe said the Nashoba Valley facility was converted into a figure skating facility.
Renfroe decided to take matters into his own hands. He built the New England Sports Center, then containing four rinks, on an 11-acre parcel on Donald Lynch Boulevard. It opened in November 1994.
“The biggest problem was getting ice time,” he said. “We really weren’t looking to get into the rink business.”
Marlboro, and specifically Donald Lynch Boulevard, was an ideal location because of its proximity to two interstate highways (I-495 and I-290) and the significant number of surrounding hotels.
“Everything was less than an hour away,” said Renfroe, who also owns the Providence Bruins, the minor league affiliate of the Boston Bruins.
Renfro and General Manager Wes Tuttle never envisioned adding more rinks, but with the growing popularity of the game, the sports center added a fifth oval in 2005 and a sixth in 2010.
Aiming to attract more national and global tournaments, the facility expanded again last year. The 88,830-square-foot addition houses two new full-sized rinks, bringing the center’s total to eight full-sized ice surfaces and two training rinks. The New England Sports Center is now the largest indoor ice facility in North America.
“We never planned to go above four,” said Renfroe. “I think this is going to hold us for a while.”
David Kennedy recognizes many of the out-of-town faces that come through his Maple Street market and restaurant when tournaments come to the sports center.
“Of course, they fell in love with the restaurant,” said Kennedy, co-owner of Kennedy’s Market and Pub. “It brings a lot of business. A lot of restaurants share it.”
The situation is no different at the city’s hotels. Richard Tomanek, general manager of the Embassy Suites by Hilton Boston Marlboro and a member of the Marlboro Economic Development Corp. Executive Committee, estimated that about 50 percent or more of weekend occupancy at the hotel comes from the sports center.
“There’s a trickle-down effect,” said Tomanek.
And that means big business for Marlboro’s hotels, restaurants and other attractions. The facility generates an estimated 43,000 hotel room nights each year and hundreds of thousands of meals at city restaurants.
“They’re not just staying at the sports center,” said Meredith Harris, executive director of MEDC. “They need to eat. They need to shop. They need somewhere to stay.”
One spot that many out-of-towners flock to is the popular Apex Center, which features restaurants, hotels and an entertainment complex.
“We see a big spike in sports teams that come in for the weekend and want to burn off some energy,” said Joey Slawinski, assistant general manager of the Apex Center. “It’s definitely a huge partnership.”
Having the Apex Center a short drive from the ice rink is a big draw in helping Tuttle attract major tournaments and events to the city. Tuttle and Tomanek have traveled as far as Canada to lobby tournament organizers to bring games to Marlboro.
“The Apex Center alone has helped us grow,” said Slawinski. “It’s more like a vacation for families. It’s definitely helped Marlboro become a bigger, better destination.”
The MEDC often uses the New England Sports Center to help attract corporations to the city as part of its “Live, Work, Play” concept. Harris said heads of many corporations are already familiar with the city because of the arena.
Hockey’s popularity has drastically increased in the two-and-a-half decades since the facility opened, particularly for girls. Tuttle said the center housed only two or three girls teams in the early 1990s, but that has grown to 12 today.
“It’s the fastest-growing part of hockey,” said Tuttle.
Having a world-class rink a short drive away has helped drive more and more children to the sport.
“The kids see it, get exposed to it and say what a good thing to try,” said Tuttle. “Our future is in the youth teams and continuing to grow at a methodical pace.”
The quality of players who have cut their teeth in the sport at the center is also an attraction. Tuttle cited the success of Butler and Boxboro’s Cal Burke, who serves as a captain on Notre Dame’s hockey team, as another driving factor.
Butler – who grew up a mile away from the center and often roller-bladed or ran to practices and games – continues to grow the game in his hometown by holding a skills camp with his partner, Brian Payne – a longtime youth, high school and college coach – at the arena.
“This past summer we had a huge turnout,” said Butler, a standout on the state champion 2005 Marlboro High School hockey team. “It definitely keeps kids on the ice and out of trouble.”
Many memories of Butler’s youth came at the Donald Lynch Boulevard arena, including scoring a key goal in the Daily News Cup during his freshman year at Marlboro High School. He hopes local children continue to make memories at the facility for years to come.
“It’s pretty special,” he said.
This article by Jeff Malachowski originally appeared here.