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Lead donor and alumnus Merlis Belsher and U of S President Peter Stoicheff drop the puck for Huskies captain Jesse Forsberg (right) and Tristan Frei (left) of the Regina Cougars at the ceremonial opening faceoff at Merlis Belsher Place on Oct. 26. (Photo: GetMyPhoto.ca)

Merlis Belsher Place connected to the community

While it’s easy to see Merlis Belsher Place as a new home for the University of Saskatchewan Huskie teams, the multi-sport facility is already serving to connect the campus to the community in Saskatoon and the province.

If you ask Chad London, the dean of the College of Kinesiology, that’s precisely what Merlis Belsher Place was always intended to be.

“It’s going to be one of the most common ways in which people from the community in Saskatoon and beyond engage with the campus,” said London, adding that the space brings with it the opportunity to host activities outside of athletics, including concerts, trade shows and the return of U of S convocation ceremonies to the main campus in June, 2019. “To me, it’s an open door to the community.”

That sense of community was integral to the design of Merlis Belsher Place, from concept to completion, both from the perspective of U of S leadership and from the primary donors. Merlis Belsher’s donation of $12.25 million kickstarted the $51-million twin-ice surface project with the largest individual donation in the history of the U of S, while Ron and Jane Graham contributed $6-million to add two basketball courts and establish the Ron and Jane Graham Sport Science and Health Centre.

Merlis Belsher Place opened the doors on Oct. 1 with local minor hockey teams taking to the ice, along with U of S Campus Recreation hockey teams playing the first official games in the facility, as the popular intramural league (featuring more than 50 teams and 900 students) settled into its new home. The first Huskie hockey game was played Oct. 5, with the grand opening celebrations taking place on Oct. 26-27.

The City of Saskatoon, which donated $4-million to the project, is one of the big beneficiaries of the new facility, with the two new hockey rinks providing much-needed ice time for local teams.

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“In towns across Saskatchewan, the rink is a gathering place for the entire community, and this rings true in Saskatoon as well with this new facility serving this important need,” said Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark, who thanked all the donors who helped to usher the project to completion. “As the first new ice pads in our city in 20 years, this new arena is an investment in our entire community and it is a small glimpse into what is possible when the city and university partner and work together.”

The Saskatoon Minor Hockey Association (SMHA) is one of the major community groups benefitting from the access to Merlis Belsher Place, which will provide an additional 1,500 hours of ice time each year for the more than 5,000 boys and girls making up the 310 minor hockey teams in the city.

“Just that sense of newness and pride and the all-around awesomeness of this new facility is going to be such a thrill,” said Kelly Boes, executive director of the SMHA. “I was there on the first night that we had our minor league hockey out there, and those kids, their jaws hit the ground when they walked in and saw what they were going to be playing on.”

Boes emphasized the sheer excitement over the new available ice for SMHA members, who banded together to raise $250,000 toward the campaign for Merlis Belsher Place.

“Everybody likes something shiny or new, whether or not it’s Christmas morning, and I think it’s been a long time since any minor hockey kids in this city have had that pleasure,” said Boes.

Meanwhile, London points to the soon-to-to-completed Ron and Jane Graham Sport Science and Health Centre—a state-of-the-art research lab and athlete health clinic located inside Merlis Belsher Place—as another key component of the facility that will help draw interest from well beyond campus.

“We see an opportunity with this space to bring community in, and it can be athletes from all levels across Saskatchewan who come into this sports health centre, as part of a research project perhaps, or athlete testing or even athlete health,” he said.

Among other events, Merlis Belsher Place is hosting figure skating and sledge hockey, and will also be the site of world-calibre curling when the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling comes to campus April 23-28, 2019.

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