Whistler officials are proceeding with plans for a Paralympic sledge hockey arena in Whistler Village in spite of expressions of desire from some officials who attended the 2006 Games in Italy to see some or all of the hockey games take place at larger Vancouver venues in 2010.
Mayor Ken Melamed, who just returned from the Paralympics on Monday, admitted he and other Whistler officials were surprised by the popularity of sledge hockey at the just-completed Games in Torino, Italy. The gold-medal game, which Canada won, took place in a raucous, sold-out arena that seats 4,100.
As proposed, the Whistler arena on Lots 1 and 9 would seat just 2,750. The support shown for sledge hockey in Torino prompted some, including John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee (VANOC), and Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, to wonder aloud about the possibility of staging at least some of the games at either Pacific Coliseum or GM Place, where the gold medal game could draw up to 16,000.
Melamed, speaking on Tuesday after Council's regular meeting, said he agreed with Furlong, who told the Vancouver Sun that "the final test, the litmus test, is what is good for the athletes."
Melamed, though, said officials with the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) and VANOC should proceed down the path they have chosen only if and when another is chosen.
He presumed that such a request would most likely come from Hockey Canada, which oversees sledge-hockey programs in the country, and that VANOC would then have to weigh its merits and make a decision.
"The part that's interesting is we all desire the same thing -the advancement of Paralympic sport," Melamed said. "That may mean the best thing is that it be in a larger venue, but it's disappointing to hear now, four years after the (2010) bid was developed, that the size of our arena is being questioned.
Since last fall, when they agreed to take $20 million being offered by VANOC for the arena, RMOW officials have been working on plans for an arena and other facilities in Whistler Village. Earlier this month, in fact, the community was offered a chance to comment on four different concepts for the site. Cost estimates for all of the facilities are in the $35 million range, with the shortfall to be made up either by taxpayers or through corporate sponsorships, or a combination.
Before RMOW Council opted to accept the $20 million, VANOC, the District of Squamish and the RMOW discussed a plan that would have seen Squamish get $8 million for the main sledge hockey venue and $12 million stay in Whistler -$8 million for a second ice arena at Meadow Park and $4 million used to upgrade the Olympic athletes' centre in Cheakamus South.
That plan was put on the back burner when the RMOW voted to accept the $20 million. One reason given for accepting the money was a desire to remain true to the long-standing vision of a "compact" Paralympic Games -with the opening ceremonies in Vancouver but all of the events, and the closing ceremonies, in Whistler.
On Tuesday, RMOW officials said that vision is still a guiding principle for the 2010 Paralympics."The IPC (International Paralympic Committee), CPC, VANOC and the RMOW still want to see it in Whistler," said Diana Waltmann, RMOW information officer.
However, one prominent Whistlerite, three-time Paralympian Stacy Kohut, said he thinks it would be ludicrous to stage the sledge-hockey medal rounds in a 2,750-seat arena when they would likely draw much larger crowds in Vancouver.
"Personally, I'd like to see all the sledge hockey at GM Place or better yet, Pacific Coliseum," said Kohut, who served as a CBC television commentator in Torino. "I think it would be much more appropriate for the sport, and it would be much more appropriate to see Vancouver and the Lower Mainland get involved more in Paralympic mania.
"And frankly, with all that's happened with the Paralympic arena -'Oh, let's give it to Squamish no, Pemberton, no' -Whistler doesn't deserve this arena. Ideally, I'd like to see the gold-medal hockey game at GM Place. It's what would be best for the Paralympics and best for the sport.
"Whistler is ski crazy, so why not put hockey down there where the city is hockey crazy?"