by Ann M. Colford
Remember that scene at the start of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special? The one where all the Peanuts kids skate around a little pond as snowflakes float down out of a cotton-gray sky? For me and lots of others who came of age in American suburbs and small towns -- in the north, at least -- that scene epitomized the ideal of skating. Outdoors, on a little pond surrounded by trees, in heavy socks and hand-me-down skates, we'd rattle across the bumpy surface, dodging rocks, stray leaves and each other until we could no longer feel our toes.
Years ago, Spokane children experienced skating like this at Manito Park or Cannon Hill Park, where the parks department would flood the ponds and neighbors kept the ice surfaces free of snow. Liability worries brought an end to pond skating in city parks, although it still may be possible to find a private pond that freezes just right. For most people now, though, skating means a trip to the local rink, where the snow never falls and the Zamboni lays down a fresh clean surface every couple of hours.
Skating may not have the same wide appeal as skiing in the Inland Northwest, but rink operators and skating organizers hope that the visibility of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games and the recent Skate America competition will lead to a surge in the popularity of ice sports here. The opening of two new indoor ice rinks in the Spokane Valley three years ago doubled the number of ice surfaces in the area, and the number of hockey and figure skating groups increased. But demand didn't grow fast enough to prevent the closure of Ice World USA in July. Most groups that used the Liberty Lake facility have moved to the remaining local rinks, making ice time a more limited commodity at Planet Ice, Eagles Ice-A-Rena and the Ice Palace in Riverfront Park.
"The closure of Ice World has impacted me in a big way," says Steve Baker, manager of Planet Ice in the Valley. "I've had to cut some of our public skating time to make time for groups playing hockey or for figure skaters."
Despite the cuts, there's still plenty of time available for public skating sessions, especially in the low-demand midday hours. The Ice Palace at Riverfront Park leads the way in public skating sessions, with at least 56 hours each week open to the general public. As a city-run facility, the Ice Palace boasts low admission fees, frequent special promotions and an affordable season pass. The rink is covered but not enclosed, lending a taste of outdoor skating to the experience -- which can be either a plus or a minus, depending on the wind chill and the temperature. It also means a shorter season; March heralds the end of skating in the park.
But there's lots of winter to get through before that, and manager Debby Dodson says the season's attendance numbers are looking strong so far. To make skating easier and more comfortable, the Ice Palace has stocked a new inventory of rental skates, says Dodson. "These are buckle skates, similar to rollerblades," she explains. "They really are quite comfortable, and we sharpen them regularly."
Eagles Ice-A-Rena in north Spokane also has public skating hours every day of the week, with extra sessions on the weekends. In addition, adults may drop in to play hockey on weekdays over the noon hour. For those seeking time to practice hockey skills in an informal setting, a special all-ages stick-and-puck session takes place every Monday afternoon.
"There are not a lot places where dads and kids can come out and skate around together, and the stick-and-puck session gives that opportunity," says Sandy Blackwell at Eagles. Overall, she says, attendance at all sessions seems to be stronger than usual this year. "Skate America did a nice job with promotion and raised the interest in skating here. It's so much fun to see new people coming in. Last year was tough; people are just doing life differently, I think. But this year we're seeing the numbers back up."
In the Valley, Planet Ice still devotes nearly 13 hours each week to public skating, with a schedule focused on the after-school and weekend hours. On Fridays, adults may drop in for noon hockey here as well.
"With our public skating sessions, we try to make it a family atmosphere," says Baker. The rink holds special promotional events like a Christian music night and a skate-around with local junior hockey players.
Although he hasn't seen much increase yet in public skating numbers, Baker is optimistic for the rest of the season. "There's a lot of enthusiasm for skating here now, especially with just having Skate America here," he says. "It's still early in the year yet, and people generally don't think about going skating until the snow flies. A lot of people like to skate at Riverfront Park, but when it gets cold and windy, people want to come inside."
Baker sees the importance of public skating sessions as a way to develop a new generation of loyal customers. "It all starts with public skating," he says. "If people come and have a good time, then maybe they'll want to start playing hockey or to get into figure skating."
When the skating bug strikes, local facilities are ready. In addition to the public sessions, each rink offers Learn-to-Skate classes for those who are new to the ice or who just want to brush up on basic skills. Coaches from the three local figure skating clubs -- the Spokane, Lilac City and Inland Northwest Figure Skating Clubs -- teach the group classes, which generally run in consecutive six-week sessions. (The Ice Palace at Riverfront Park does offer an accelerated program starting November 18 that meets Monday through Thursday.) Classes are for all students, those aiming toward either figure skating or hockey, and those who just want to be more confident recreational skaters. And the classes aren't just for kids; adults are welcome, and adult-only groups may be available depending on demand.
Having mastered the basic skills, the skating enthusiast may choose between figure skating and hockey. Those who dream of becoming the next Michelle Kwan or Elvis Stojko will want to connect with one of the local figure skating clubs. While the clubs are not geared only to competitors, they are the sanctioned testing administrators for those who wish to enter the competitions of the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA). But serious recreational skaters will appreciate the private ice time set aside just for club members, as well.
For hockey players, Spokane is home to a wide variety of organizations. Whether you're a rank beginner or a wily veteran, in the first grade or the first year of retirement, aiming for serious play or playing at aiming seriously, there's a place for you to play hockey in Spokane. Both Eagles and Planet Ice host a full range of youth hockey programs and recreational leagues for men, women and children of all ages.