Which events you watch in the winter Olympics has a lot to do with where you live. A story published just last week in the New York Times chronicles these national preferences along with the possible cultural and social reasons behind them. In many parts of the world, including the United States and Canada, sports on ice — figure skating, ice dancing, hockey —remain at top the list.
For those of us who grew up in the northern half of the United States, it’s easy to understand why. Some of our fondest memories draw back to winter afternoons playing hockey on frozen ponds or gliding over the freshly Zambonied ice of a community ice rink.
These days city parks departments and design-build firms are making it easier to skate — and, in many cases, to do so outdoors with access to restrooms, warming shelters, and other creature comforts of indoor rinks. In Madison, Wisconsin, for instance, the parks division offers free ice skating at 12 outdoor sites; amenities vary at locations but include features such as evening lighting, hockey boards, skate rentals (figure and hockey), hockey stick rentals and concessions. On community nights at some area rinks, families, friends, and couples can skate to music under colorful LED light displays.
Most of us know the ice rink at New York’s Rockefeller Center. It’s the romantic spectacle of countless movies and books (Catcher in the Rye and Elf come quickly to mind), but the options in the city go well beyond this; the New York City Parks now offers seasonal outdoor skating in in all four boroughs. Taking advantage of a long cold season, Chicago has fee-based learn-to-skate and hockey programs, as well as special clinics hosted by the Chicago Blackhawks. Buffalo, New York is also ahead of the curve. At the Ice at Canalside location, you can rent an ice bike, go curling, play pond hockey and purchase food from onsite vendors.
Under the hand of a skilled landscape architect, a skating rink and water play area can be integrated to create the feel of a riparian landscape. A terrific example of this is on display at Creekside Common in Chelsea, Massachusetts, designed by John Ryther, ASLA, of ICON parks design. There, an all-season ice rink is situated beside a splash pad and water discovery area. Simulating a mountain stream, a cast concrete channel winds past rough-hewn boulders, plantings, and a Goric system of hand-operated water gates. The draw gates, along with a Goric Farm Pump which feeds the waterway, allow budding landscape architects, ecologists, and civil engineers to control the halt and release of water. The watercourse relates to the rink, visually and thematically, and leads to a splash basin and overflow drainage system.
Some of the newest rinks – such as those at Boston’s City Hall Plaza and Maggie Daley Park – are bold statement pieces designed with architectural aesthetics in mind. Curving elliptical paths, bounded by hockey boards, wind past evergreens and shrubs, and make skating more whimsical and seductive, like running through a forest glen rather than doing laps on a track.
One of the largest companies in the business is Rink Management Services Company. Their portfolio includes rinks from Atlanta to Philadelphia and recent projects, such the Wharf in Washington DC, The Park at Wrigley Field, and the Standard Hotel in New York are designing forms beyond the prototypical oval rink and locating their rinks in unfamiliar settings – hotel interiors, baseball stadium concourses, even boat docks.
For children, skating is wonderful winter exercise. It’s not only a fine way to improve leg strength and balance, it’s also a great cardiovascular exercise and a challenging skill to be mastered with repetition and practice: from striding forward with synchronized movement of the upper and lower body to starting and stopping, skating backwards, and perhaps someday, a double axel or whistling slap shot. Like all exercise performed regularly, skating can also help combat stress and improve your mood.
If you’re the parent of a first-time skater and you’re anything like me, you’ll also struggle to swallow your laughter as your child laces up and takes their first few tentative steps on skates. Those wobbly ankles make for home video footage worthy of a place in the permanent collection. And, like many experiences outside in the fresh air, it will be there decades later to warm your thoughts.