Hockey legend Mark Messier and figure skater Sarah Hughes are two of the most adored figures in ice sports in New York history. As the captain of the New York Rangers, Messier led the team to victory in the 1993–94 Stanley Cup, ending its 54-year drought. Hughes, a native Long Islander, won the gold medal in ladies’ singles at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Now these two great athletes have teamed up to transform the landmark Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx into a world-class nine-rink $300 million ice center. City & State Editor Morgan Pehme spoke with Hughes and Messier about navigating the politics to get this ambitious facility built, what inspired them to take on the challenge, and when the Kingsbridge National Ice Center will be open for business.
The following is an edited transcript.
CITY & STATE: Mark, you are the CEO of the Kingsbridge National Ice Center. How did you get involved with the project?
MARK MESSIER: A good friend of mine had two boys playing hockey in the city, and recognized right away that it was not easy for his boys to get adequate ice time. … We were originally going to build a twin rink in and around the metropolitan area. That deal luckily fell through, and we were shown the Kingsbridge Armory, which has sat vacant for 20 years. It was obviously bigger and a more elaborate project than we intended, but we soon realized the need for it.
C&S: Sarah, how did you get involved?
SARAH HUGHES: Somebody who was doing a bunch of research for the project, his wife had gone to undergrad and then law school with my sister, and so he told the founder, “I think I know somebody in figure skating who can give us some insight into what we can include in skating.” … So they called me, and once I heard about the project I wanted to do anything I could to help.
C&S: Growing up in Great Neck on Long Island, where did you go to skate?
SH: Originally—I started skating when I was 3 or 4 years old—I skated at a rink that was five minutes from our house, but it was … only open in the fall and the winter … To train for the Olympics I was going to New Jersey every single day.
C&S: Mark, Borough President Ruben Díaz Jr. of the Bronx had scuttled an earlier project that was slated to be in the Kingsbridge Armory because of concerns over workers there being able to receive a living wage. How did you surmount those obstacles in order to get the Ice Center to move forward?
MM: We set out to fix a problem with ice sports in the metropolitan area. What we realized was that we’re sitting on something much bigger than that. We had three things in mind: First of all, we wanted to be accepted by the community for what we stood for and what we were about to do; and what we tried to focus in on was three things: kids, community and jobs. And the living wage was taken off the table immediately, because we felt like it was our responsibility to come into somebody’s neighborhood and become partners with them to create jobs and to make the existing businesses around them better by attracting the people that will come in yearly to Kingsbridge National Ice Center. We expect anywhere from 2 to 3, perhaps 4 million people to travel through there, so the whole economic engine behind what we’re trying to create is going to benefit the whole community. We went in there first and foremost to convince the neighborhood that these are the things that could happen, and we became very good friends and partners with the people there. They trust us now and they realize that we’re there for all of the right intentions. … Currently there are no ice rinks in the Bronx, and it is incredible to think that the Bronx [would be] the seventh largest city in the United States, without a single ice rink in it, so we feel there’s a need for it, but far more importantly than the ice sports—the ice sports are only the vehicle to create all these different avenues that will open up because of it.
C&S: Ice sports are not very popular with minority communities. Will having the Ice Center in the Bronx promote enthusiasm in these groups?
MM: There’s a good reason they don’t play, because there’s no opportunity to play—and if there was … financially it would be tough. … We’re donating $1 million of ice a year, free equipment, free coaching for these kids, … free learn-to-skate programs. We’re giving 50,000 square feet of the Armory and $8 million to build … whatever they deem fit for the space, … giving the kids the opportunity to do something they’ve never done before. … Creating good civilians through sports is really what inspires me.
C&S: Figure skating and ice hockey tend to be pretty expensive sports to participate in. Sarah, will the Center enable generations who would not otherwise be involved in these types of activities to get involved?
SH: The first thing when we were looking at the Armory was to get accepted by the community and to work together with them. … When we went into Community Board 7 and talked about our project, just the response when we walked in and then Mark went up and spoke was unbelievable. The community has really embraced the project. … I think kids are going to be excited to come to the Armory, and not just to do ice sports but to create … a great place to learn, … to grow, on and off the ice.
C&S: Mark, did you have any apprehensions about the political and logistical side of getting involved in a $300 million massive project like this?
MM: Considering it’s a historical landmark building, there’s always challenges, but … the importance of the project, and the scope of the project, and what it stands for, for the city, the Bronx, and the metropolitan area, always trumps that it’s difficult. You wake up every day knowing there’s hurdles to climb, but you do it because it’s a big responsibility we have for our children .
C&S: Will the next generation of hockey players emerge from the New York City area?
MM: I believe there’s a child in this metropolitan area, especially the Bronx, that has that talent, and given the opportunity and the coaching and the financial needs it takes to get to that level, I believe in 20 years we’ll see someone from the Bronx make it to the elite level.