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Horse people vs. ice people and more stories from a beloved Oregon ice rink captured in book

A building in the snow. The words "Ice Center" appear on the side of the building. A driveway with tire tracks is in the foreground.
Michael Sheehan
In this provided photo, the Rink Exchange ice rink — formerly named Lane County Ice Arena — in Eugene, Ore., is pictured in a snow storm in December 2021. Stories from the ice rink, located at the Lane County Fairgrounds, are the focus of a new book by Michael Sheehan.

Eugene author Michael Sheehan’s first book is called “Rink: Stories from an Oregon Ice Arena.” It contains an exhaustive history of the Lane County Ice Arena — now called “The Rink Exchange” — filled with glittering figure skating stars, a war between pitchforks and hockey sticks, and even a Mexican drug cartel.

Sheehan will sign copies of his book on Friday, Nov. 17 from 5:00 PM-8:00 PM at The Rink Exchange, 796 W 13th Ave, Eugene.

He recently spoke with OPB’s “Weekend Edition” host Lillian Karabaic.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Lillian Karabaic: There were so many interesting things I learned in the course of reading this book: Before Lane County Ice Arena opened, it had been 40 years since there had been a sheet of ice in Eugene. But in the 1940s I learned there was a short-lived Oregon Hockey League. Can you tell me about that?

Michael Sheehan: Yeah, and that was news to me also, but in the 1940s, there was a rink in Eugene, and surprise, surprise, there was a rink in Salem and Corvallis. Of course, there was a rink in Portland, so near the end, I think it was 1948, there was a Oregon Hockey League: Oregon Amateur Hockey League with those four cities and they played against each other. Unfortunately, the rink in Eugene was a wood building, and with all the condensation and stuff, it literally started to decay, and so it was condemned as an ice rink. And that was it.

Karabaic: The push to get an ice rink installed on the county fairgrounds really highlighted simmering tensions in the 1980s between Lane County’s urban and rural divide. You described this as a battle between horse people and ice people, which I loved. Can you tell me a little bit about what went down?

Sheehan: The horse arena was in the middle of the fairgrounds, and it was a big deal, of course, the equestrians. But the problem was that the usage was really going down. So, fairground leadership wanted to make a change, and one of the options was to bring in an ice rink, which is very interesting. They wanted to get a WHL team. And the tension was that, of course, the equestrian people did not want to give up their horse arena. And so there were emotional county council meetings and kind of a lot of behind-the-scenes politics. Eventually there was an agreement to redo the horse arena on the outside and then put in a sheet of ice.

Karabaic: The thing that I thought was really striking was the groundbreaking photos where you’d see all these dignitaries dressed in suits, and some of them had cowboy hats and pitchforks, and then some of them had hockey sticks.

Sheehan: Glad you noticed that because it really indicated that there was a split even among local leadership and some of the county commissioners, a couple of people really did not want the rink to happen. So they had their — politely and everything — they had their pitchforks out and their cowboy hats, and meanwhile, a bunch of the other dignitaries had hockey sticks in their hands.

Karabaic: So you described the draft process for Lane County Adult Hockey as being its kind of secret sauce that led to all these long-lasting friendships, which you detailed in the book. What is unique about the draft process?

Sheehan: A lot of people mention it that they feel like it’s really special. Most ranks, most teams, they stay together year to year, and you kind of build up animosity. But initially nobody knew how good anybody was. So they established a draft, and the draft has continued for the last 33 years, and what that does is it mixes up the team. So let’s say you had an encounter with another person, a guy, and there was tension between you. Well, the captains would then put you together on a team the next season. So eventually everyone is your friend and it’s really unique. And a couple of people have played hockey all over the country and they say this doesn’t happen very often. So I think it’s built a really strong hockey community, and I know that’s something important to me and it’s important to a lot of people. These guys I’ve played hockey with for well over 30 years, and we all feel like the community’s really important to us.

In this provided archival photo, Danny LaPoma is seen after his last hockey game at Lane County Ice Arena.
Mitch Boriskin
Mitch Boriskin
In this provided archival photo, Danny LaPoma is seen after his last hockey game at Lane County Ice Arena, which he played while on hospice care and while using an oxygen tank thanks to his teammates' support. He died 11 days after the game. LaPoma's picture now hangs in the lobby of the ice rink.

Karabaic: Yeah, the stories of community were some of the most striking ones in your book. One story that really stuck out to me was Danny LaPoma’s last hockey game. Can you tell me about that?

Sheehan: Yeah, that’s kind of a legendary story. And Danny LaPoma was a beloved hockey player, family guy. He was a nurse at McKenzie Willamette, and unfortunately, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer at I think the age of 48. So it was devastating. And so a couple of hockey guys went over to visit him. He was on hospice, he just barely could get out of bed. And he said, ‘God, it would be great if I could just play hockey one more time. I would so like to play hockey one more time.’ One of the guys was a goalie and he jumped up and he said, ‘well, you could play goalie.’ And from that point, a plan was hatched. And again, Danny was very weak. He needed to be brought into the rink, but what happened was, and he was on oxygen, so he had an oxygen tank connected to him.

The players got him all ready. They snaked the oxygen tube up through all his equipment into his nose, and they put the oxygen tank literally on top of the net behind him, and he played the rest of the game and he made some saves, and he was ecstatic. I mean, hockey players are not the most sharing of people, and we don’t use the term love that often, but it’s really true that a lot of people in that group really love each other. So it was a very sad story. He passed away 11 days after that, but he got to play hockey, and that was great.

Lillian Karabaic: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. That was Michael Sheehan, the author of Rink: Stories from an Oregon Ice Arena.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Lillian Karabaic