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Essentia Health Sports Center renovations provide increased access for disabled

Now when Cade Villwock takes to the ice with his hockey team, his dad is able to see him skate thanks to renovations creating an entirely new look and feel at the Essentia Health Sports Center in Brainerd.

Ice Mites make their way off the ice Wednesday at the renovated Essentia Health Sports Center in Brainerd. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)
Ice Mites make their way off the ice Wednesday at the renovated Essentia Health Sports Center in Brainerd. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)

Now when Cade Villwock takes to the ice with his hockey team, his dad is able to see him skate thanks to renovations creating an entirely new look and feel at the Essentia Health Sports Center in Brainerd.

His dad Scott Villwock, stricken with Huntington's disease, has used a wheelchair for the past two years. The family loves hockey, both its pace and teamwork. It gives them a way to embrace winter. Cade, now 11, has been playing hockey since he was 4 years old. His sister, Quin, 12, also plays pond hockey. The sport has been an important element of the family's life for years.

The recent upgrades to the sports center were focused on improving the experience for those who are disabled. An elevator now provides access to the warm second floor. Gary Villwock, Scott's dad, said they have their own favorite spot overlooking the Gold Medal Arena, settling Scott's wheelchair in the viewing area. Down below, hockey players flew across the ice during drills.

"It's amazing," Kristi Villwock said of the difference for her husband. "Before with the boards as high as they are, he couldn't see over the boards."

Gary Villwock would lift his adult son and prop him up so he could see the action on the ice. They'd wear snowmobile suits to stay warm. As a family, they've been rink regulars for eight years. Scott attends practices, home and away games. Lola Villwock, Scott's mother, said when her son sees Cade skate, it puts a sparkle in his eyes.

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It was difficult to keep track of Cade with the action at eye-level. Previously, the only way to access the second story was a long flight of steps. An elevator was installed to make the second floor wheelchair accessible. Upstairs a ramp provides easy viewing of the Gold Medal Arena. The elevated vantage point, in a warm spot, allows Scott to see his young son on the ice and keep up with the action. "He can be in either arena and see that and be warm," Kristi Villwock said. "He couldn't even get up here before at all. ... it's huge."

She said the wheelchair access isn't something people think about until they need it.

"I think this is the perfect place for people who are handicapped," Quin Villwock said.

Shawn Sundquist, Brainerd Amateur Hockey Association Board of Directors president, said it means Scott Villwock is able to see his child grow up doing something he loves to do. Cade said he doesn't even mind getting up at 6 a.m. during the school year or 7 a.m. in the summer to spend time on the ice.

"I just like skating," Cade said, adding he's pleased with the changes to the sports center. "It makes me happy because my dad could hardly see where I was. Now he can actually see where I am and what I'm doing so he can actually give me tips and stuff."

For players and fans, updates to the sports center are making for a better experience from an updated locker room with a now functioning restroom to more warm viewing areas. The second floor now has a full kitchen. Concession stand windows are now wheelchair accessible. Bathrooms on the second floor were expanded and redone to be American with Disabilities Act compliant. The upstairs women's bathroom went from two stalls to six. Overall, the bathroom facilities nearly doubled. A changing table was added for those with young children.

Beyond making the facility more user friendly, the additions give it more options in hosting large events. Already, hockey tournaments bring in 15 teams. With players and family members, events have filled 300 area hotel rooms for three days. The hockey association has about 400 members and Vacationland Figure Skaters have about 125 skaters from 90 families. Young people aren't the only ones lacing ups skates as old-timers take to the ice for hockey games as well. High school students also use the weight room. There are tournaments at the facility during weekends in December, January and February.

In addition to those using wheelchairs, the elevator and ramps make it easier for older residents, grandparents or those needing assistance to walk to access the entire facility.

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"I love the viewing area for the Gold Medal Arena. You can cheer and they can hear you because before they couldn't hear you through the glass," Kristi Villwock said before the updates. "It's so bright in here. They've done a lot of work."

The Brainerd Amateur Hockey Foundation members provided 800 volunteer hours in the effort to upgrade the facility. Family members of hockey players and figure skaters also assisted. One hundred hockey players and figure skaters raised about $11,000 by volunteering throughout the community, placing particular emphasis with organizations providing services to the disabled: Camp Confidence, Brainerd Lakes Miracle League Field, Good Samaritan Society and Mounted Eagles. The money, along with a $25,000 donation from a philanthropic area family, went toward costs of adding the $75,000 elevator.

"'Kids in the Community' day made a huge difference in our kids lives," Bob Joyce, BAHF board member stated. "Our goal was very simple. Let's find a way to teach kids how to give back to their community. Since the financial benefactor this year was tied to handicap accessibility at the Essentia Health Sport Center, we tried our best to focus our work projects on jobs that would benefit handicapped people in our community."

For Essentia Health, the partnership in setting up a 10-year naming rights agreement was a natural fit on several levels with a community project focused on healthy activities and greater access for the disabled, said Miranda Anderson, Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center marketing and community relations. "We felt it was the right fit with our mission on fitness," Anderson said, noting Essentia Health's work with Crow Wing County in the Crow Wing Energized movement to improve community health and provide more healthy choices.

"We truly came into this as a partnership," Anderson said. "We hope and anticipate to bring more people into this building to do both on the ice and off the ice activities."

For children age 10 and younger, BAHA along with partners such as Cub Foods provide equipment and skating at no charge to let them experience hockey.

Other community partners in the renovation for the facility included Widseth Smith Nolting, Nor-Son, Inc. and Bremer Bank.

Sundquist said many contractors heavily discounted costs, in-kind labor and donations all went into restoring and improving on a community asset. Some work is still in progress, such as moving the weight room upstairs and transforming the current space off the main ice rink into more locker rooms. On the to-do list are shooting lanes. Other changes include moving the Zamboni storage room so the big ice resurfacer no longer crosses the public walkway to reach the ice.

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This Saturday, the public will be able to tour the facility, get a free giveaway and have free admission to see hockey games.

"I'm super excited to finally get here," Sundquist said. "... It gives a new sense of pride, not just Brainerd hockey or Warrior hockey but community pride."

Additional options exist for naming rights of the ice rinks. For more information on how to be involved as a volunteer or a donor to help complete the sports center's transformation, contact Jamie Hukriede at jhukriede@gmail.com .

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Dispatchbizbuzz .

If you go

Community members are welcome to tour the renovated Essentia Health Sports Center from 1-5 p.m. Saturday and receive a free giveaway of gloves, ones that allow wearers to operate smartphones and other touch devices.

The Brainerd Amateur Hockey Foundation is also inviting people to come to the center, 502 Jackson St. in Brainerd, and attend the Brainerd High School team hockey games for free. Game times for the Brainerd High School teams are 1-3 p.m. varsity girls and junior varsity boys take on Bemidji, then from 3-5 p.m. varsity boys and junior varsity girls face off against Bemidji.

About the Essentia Health Sports Center

The original facility was erected in 1977 with an upstairs heated mezzanine and concession area added in the early 1980s.

The Gold Medal Arena was added in 1999, increasing space by more than 17,000 square feet.

Combined, the two arenas have more than 39,000 square feet of available space.

The Brainerd Amateur Hockey Foundation owns the center, formerly known as the Brainerd Area Civic Center before the center was renamed Essentia Health Sports Center.

The center has ice most of the year with dry-floor events in March, April and May.

Related Topics: ESSENTIA HEALTH
Renee Richardson is managing editor at the Brainerd Dispatch. She joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 1996 after earning her bachelor's degree in mass communications at St. Cloud State University.
Renee Richardson can be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or by calling 218-855-5852 or follow her on Twitter @dispatchbizbuzz or Facebook.
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