Duke Nelson Recreational Center
Renovations to Nelson Arena were completed in January of 2002, with the facility renamed the Nelson Recreation Center. The facility will be the predominant site for Middlebury's intramural program. A new surface was installed, with lines for several tennis, badminton and volleyball courts. The north end of the facility now has a state-of-the-art golf area, complete with a hitting net, video camera and computer for swing analysis. The south end of the facility now is home to Middlebury's new climbing wall. Increased lighting and three new offices were also part of the renovation.
The Duke Nelson Arena was home to Middlebury's men's and women's varsity ice hockey for 50 years. The arena has hosted the 1995 and 1997 NCAA Division III National Championship, as well as the 1996, 1997 and 1998 ECAC Alliance Championship. The arena was enlarged and renovated in 1983 and now contains one of the largest ice surfaces in the division. At 200 x 90 feet, the skating surface is just five feet short of Olympic dimensions. The rink accommodates up to 1,800 spectators.
THE FOLLOWING IS A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE OF DUKE NELSON ARENA, REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF THE RUTLAND HERALD AND THE STORY'S AUTHOR, CARLETON LAIRD.
HAIL AND FAREWELL TO THE DUKE
BY CARLETON LAIRD
Although the official name is Duke Nelson Arena, to the thousands of Middlebury College alumni and hockey fans, it is simply 'The Duke.' The War Memorial Field House was constructed in 1948 to replace Middlebury's outdoor hockey rink as well as provide a basketball gymnasium, offices and a training room. It will remain in place but hockey will pass from its hallowed halls into the new, state-of-the-art Chip Kenyon Arena when Middlebury dedicates the $17.5 million facility Saturday afternoon.
Prior to 1948, hockey was an outdoor sport at Middlebury. The rink had a roof but the sides were open and the wind would blow through, chilling hearty fans to the bone.
In 1948, a military surplus facility an old aircraft hanger was being decommissioned at New York states Sampson Air Force Base. Middlebury College acquired the building and it was transported by truck to the college campus.
The late Robert J. Wilson of Middlebury's class of 1950 has the distinction of not only scoring the first goal at Nelson Arena, but helping in its construction as well. Wilson has also received credit from the college for making a significant contribution toward the new Kenyon Arena.
Wilson had served with the Navy Seabees in World War II and began his collegiate career at Harvard, thanks to the GI Bill. He was known to nearly everyone as 'Ox,' undoubtedly due to his big-boned physique. After meeting legendary Middlebury coach and athletic director Walter "Duke" Nelson at a Crimson football practice in 1946 and after a conversation, Wilson was invited to come to Middlebury and was admitted shortly thereafter.
Wilson married at the end of his freshman year and, with a family starting, he was looking for work. He was able to get employment on the construction crew excavating the site for the new facility, joining a work force made up of mainly of recent immigrants, many who spoke little or no English.
Wilson spent a good deal of his time with shovel in hand, literally laying the groundwork for the facility that 40 years later would bear the name of the man who brought him to Middlebury.
The original ice surface was 185-feet long by 85-feet wide and had wire fencing on both ends with nothing along the sides. The team benches were near their present position, side-by-side on the east, but because the rink was narrower than it is today, there were three or four rows of bleachers behind them.
There were also seats behind the south goal, a couple of rows behind the north goal and several along the west side. The boards were single pieces of wood, not the more forgiving composition material used today. Refrigeration was installed in the early Ì50s and wire fencing was added along the sides for the 1957-58 season. New boards and glass were installed in the mid-1970s.
The rink was enlarged in 1983 to its present 200-by-95 dimensions and a dome was added on the north end, allowing for the installation of more bleachers that brought the capacity to 1,800.
Duke Nelson was born in 1907 and graduated cum laude from Middlebury in 1932. He coached at Union College and RPI before serving as a naval officer in World War II.
It was in 1946 that he returned to his alma mater as the head football, hockey and golf coach as well as assistant athletic director. He became athletic director in 1956, a job he held until his retirement in 1969. During his tenure as hockey coach, his teams had a 208-151-5 record, putting him third on the all-time list for coaching wins behind the late Wendell Forbes' 254 and current coach Bill Beaney's 222.
Nelson was a legend among his athletes and associates. Although known as a man who would go to the wall for his players, Nelson expected nothing but their best effort.
"He was not only a great coach, he was a great man,Ó said Dick Waterman, head athletic trainer at Middlebury from 1956-1993. ÏHe thought the world of those kids. He would do anything for them. He was an amazing, amazing man."
According to Waterman, when Nelson came to Middlebury, there were only two other full-time coaches Ò Bobo Sheehan (backfield football, ski and baseball coach) and Stub Mackey (line football, basketball and track). NelsonÌs stature extended beyond Middlebury.
"Everybody knew him,Ó said Waterman, who now resides with his wife, Carolyn, in Manchester, N.H. ÏWe were staying in Pittsfield (Mass.) on our way to play Yale and we went out to breakfast. This man came by and said ÎHi, DukeÌ and Duke called him by name. (Duke) told me after that he hadnÌt seen him since his schoolboy days at Tilton Academy. He had a great memory for people and people remembered him."
Nelson coached hockey until Forbes took over in 1964. Forbes posted his 254 wins over the next 23 years before handing the reins over to Beaney, whoÌs now entering his 13th season at the helm.
Nelson died in 1989 but not before he saw the hockey arena named in his honor in 1985. As Fred Neuberger, of the class of Ì50 and Middlebury dean of admissions emeritus, said in a retrospective of NelsonÌs life, he is gone but not forgotten.
"He will be here as long as Middlebury is here and he is everywhere Middlebury people gather anywhere in the world."
The Early Years
In the beginning, Middlebury and Norwich were the only two Vermont teams playing hockey and as a result, faced the best of the best. The Panthers played Division I teams like St. Lawrence, Clarkson, RPI, Boston College, Boston University and Ivy League teams.
"It was a great time to be there," said Mike Karin of the class of Ì59, an All-America honoree. "We played the best teams in the nation and we played representative hockey."
"It was nice timing because it was the early years of artificial ice. The campus and the town were caught up in the excitement of hockey and they embraced it."
Karin had the opportunity to play with some of MiddleburyÌs greats. Phil Latreille, (Ì61) was a scoring machine who cranked out 250 goals in his career, 80 coming in the 23-game span of his senior year. The All-America also set the single-game record with an amazing 10 goals against Colgate in February 1960.
Then there were the Frybergers. Twins Jerry and Bob graduated with Latreille and they skated as a line for two years with younger brother Dates (Ì63). The all-Fryberger line scored 48 goals and had 55 assists for 103 points in 1959-60 and then followed that with a 66-76-142 season the following year.
Dates was also an All-America and made the 1964 U.S. Olympic hockey team.
The game was different back then. Checking was allowed only in the neutral zone so it made for a more free-wheeling brand of hockey. ÏDuke taught a style that was wide open so if an individual had some skill or talent, they could perform out there and showcase it,Ó said Karin.
Karin also skated alongside Canadian Ken Kouri, and Pete Bostwick, the man he called "the greatest amateur athlete IÌve ever known." Sixty-six year-old Skip Jennings of Brandon has missed only one hockey game at the arena since 1959 Ò that because his wife was in the hospital. ÏI almost made that one,Ó Jennings said. ÏBut the roads were too bad and I think we beat Hamilton 10-0 so I didnÌt miss much.Ó Jennings remembers the big trusses of the field house being transported Ïaround the corner in BrandonÓ while he was still in high school. It was about 10 years later that his uncle and father piqued his interest in Middlebury hockey.
"We read about it in the paper and said, "LetÌs try it,"" said Jennings. One trip was all it took.
"Latreille got me excited. He was a great scorer and Karin was a great setup man. Although the game is different today, I think those guys could still play."