In 1956 Ohio University President John Baker approved a request from the Athletic Department to build a field house for indoor football, baseball, and track. However, after the building was designed and built it turned out to be not well suited for its intended purposes. Fortunately, the University President’s wife liked ice skating, and she encouraged her husband to allocate $10,000 from student funds to add an ice surface into the field house and make better use of the facility. In 1958 an ice rink was added to the floor of the field house, and from then on it became known as the Bird Ice Arena, home of the Ohio University Ice Hockey Team and host to all sorts of ice sport activities.
A group of Athens High School students soon became obsessed with hockey, and in 1963 they began informal pick-up games with makeshift equipment. Organized by the students, these games often occurred very late at night when the rink was not in use, and they were not endorsed by any entity, though the rink managers would let the players clean up around Bird Arena in exchange for ice time. Ohio University was also willing to permit the games so long as no one got hurt, but with the students’ lack of hockey equipment (they wrapped magazines around their legs as shin guards), safety had become a concern for their parents. One of the parents named Paul Walker decided to organize the games, and with the help of others, he began fundraising efforts to get ice time at the rink.
At the same time, the Ohio University hockey team was succeeding as a varsity sport, which attracted the attention of more local children to Bird Arena. Many of these children attended games and would hang around the locker room afterwards to see their favorite players, and from time to time, these players would give the children some of their old equipment. One of these players, Mike L’Heureux, began to join the children at their late-night games and eventually agreed to coach them. In time, the youth games grew large enough that Paul Walker, along with Col. Dean Smith from the Air Force ROTC program, began to schedule games with Columbus youth teams. The Athens Youth Hockey Association was born.
Over the past sixty years, the AYHA has continued to support the development of youth hockey in Athens and the surrounding region through a purely volunteer effort, with the parents of the players tirelessly working to make hockey a quality extracurricular activity. AYHA also has also been grateful for donations in the form of equipment, ice time, uniforms, and instruction from Ohio University hockey players and coaches. With the establishment of the NHL Columbus Blue Jackets, hockey has become more popular in Ohio, and the Blue Jackets have worked with the AYHA and numerous other youth associations to make the sport more accessible for potential players and their families.
Today, the AYHA is the oldest youth sports organization in Athens and southeastern Ohio that provide teams for children from the age of five to eighteen, and many former players would agree that the experience of playing hockey has provided them with leadership and collaboration skills, friendships, athleticism, and a wealth of memories. The AYHA continues its relationship with Ohio University at Bird Arena, which features an illuminated 190’ by 85’ ice surface. Activities at Bird include not only include AYHA, but also recreational skating, learn to skate and learn to play hockey programs, academic classes, recreational hockey, figure skating, and community events. The arena is also home ice for the four-time ACHA national champions, the Division-1 Ohio University Men’s Ice Hockey team, whose coaches and players have continued to support the AYHA.