On Oct. 26 and 27, the University of Saskatchewan held a grand-opening weekend for Merlis Belsher Place. The new facility aims to offer a first-class athlete experience and is expected to bring many event opportunities to both the university and the city of Saskatoon.
Construction began on the $51 million multi-purpose facility in May 2017, with completion targeted for January 2019. However, official Huskie occupancy of the building began on Oct. 1, three months ahead of schedule. Funding for the facility was a group effort, with contributions from the city, the university, alumni and other donors.
Shawn Burt, Huskies chief athletics officer, says the grand opening emphasized community involvement by offering opportunities to try out sledge hockey and skate with Howler.
“It’s important that people understand that this is a partnership between the university and the city, [that they] see everything that the donors, [the] university and our community were able to execute together,” Burt said. “It’s important that people know they have access to [Merlis Belsher Place] not just as a ticketed event. This is a dynamic facility, and it’s ours, and we are excited to share in it with everyone.”
For Burt, the community’s reception of the facility has been positive.
“It’s been overwhelmingly positive. It’s one of those things that everybody is talking about. We’ve had six games in the facility, and the rumour mill is going pretty strong,” Burt said. “When people come in and experience it for the first time, I think their expectations are being exceeded. I think that says everything [that] needs to be said about this kind of facility.”
Burt says that Merlis Belsher Place provides a state-of-the-art facility for teams to play in. He expects that the facility will be an asset to both the university and Saskatoon and that it will demonstrate the dedication of the university’s athletics department to providing one of the best post-secondary student-athlete experiences.
The sports facility will offer a number of student job opportunities, including ushers and retail positions. Burt says that his team is working to include a student-centred management team for the more than 500 seats in the student-seating section, although it has not yet been decided if positions on this team will be paid or not.
“We will be looking for a president and two vice-presidents and people underneath to oversee it — from getting students [to the games] to in-game experience, be it chants or theme nights,” said Burt. “We are going to be actively posting and looking for people to oversee that section within Merlis Belsher Place, and it will be 100 per cent focused on students.”
With the new facility now in use, Burt says that the U of S will soon begin to decommission the Rutherford Rink, the previous home for Huskies hockey.
“Effectively, Rutherford is in its retirement stage. The university has been taking care of the facility and managing it through the transition,” Burt said. “I don’t know the specifics, but they will slowly begin to turn off the ice plant, take certain assets out that the university might want to keep and start to plan for the demolition of the facility. I believe that will happen in the spring or summer of next year.”
Ultimately, Burt says that Merlis Belsher Place is going to garner attention from across the province.
“We see [Merlis Belsher Place] as a Saskatoon — potentially provincial — asset within the university campus,” Burt said. “This facility is going to bring in all kinds of events spanning different sports, and it’s going to become a destination point for many people in the city and across the province.”
Photo: Thomas Garchinski, Riley Deacon / Photo Editor