Photo by Don Nelson
Adult and youth hockey tournaments have been big money-makers for the rink.

Ice-making system expands season, skating programs

By Don Nelson

What a difference a really big ice machine makes.

A year ago, the Winthrop Rink was already closed for the season after a Christmas Day 2015 opening. The rink had been plagued by bad (meaning warm) weather and the frustration of unremitting delays in the arrival and installation of a long-anticipated refrigeration system that would create a permanent ice surface.

Now the refrigeration system is working just fine and the rink will break all records for visitors and revenues, the Winthrop Town Council was told last week.

The rink is owned by the town and operated by a nonprofit organization with its own board of directors. Board president Jill Calvert and rink manager Connor Walsh reviewed the rink’s operations at last week’s council meeting.

The rink opened for the season on Nov. 18, 2016, and has been continuously open since then, hosting a variety of skating activities, instructional programs and several youth and adult hockey tournaments.

Walsh told the council that the rink has already been open for 75 days — the longest prior season was 73 days in 2013-14 — and enjoyed its largest holiday season ever, with more than 3,600 visitors. The rink will be open for about 40 more days this season, through mid-March, Walsh said.

The rink has outstripped its participation in open skating and drop-in hockey sessions with nearly 7,900 visitors so far, compared to the record 2013-14 season of 6,400,Walsh said.

Tournaments a hit

But the biggest difference for the rink and town merchants this year has been the hockey tournaments, which draw youth and adult teams from throughout the region to play outdoors. Response by visitors has been uniformly positive if not downright ecstatic, Walsh told the council.

Projecting typical spending for lodging, food, gas and other purchases by visitors, Walsh estimated that the six scheduled tournaments will bring $275,000 to $300,000 into the local economy. As many as eight teams take part in the tournaments.

Last season, several scheduled hockey tournaments had to be canceled, costing the rink and the town’s hospitality providers thousands of dollars in anticipated revenues.

“It’s a very happy place now, after nothing but bad news a year ago,” Calvert told the council. “It’s been a very successful year.”

Calvert said the hockey tournament participants “eat at weird hours” because of the game times — which may start early in the morning — and “we’re trying to figure out how to accommodate them” at local eateries.

Also on the schedule this year is a long-anticipated outdoor face-off between the club hockey teams from the University of Washington and Washington State University, on Feb. 18 starting at 7 p.m. — a match that’s being called the “Apple Puck.” Walsh said the teams had hoped to play in Winthrop last year, but ice conditions at the rink were not suitable. There will be $10 admission charge for the game. Walsh said he is hoping to add more bleacher seats.

Long process

State grants and local contributions of labor and materials to build the original rink facility, and to later add new facilities and the refrigeration equipment, come to about $1 million. Before the refrigeration was installed, the rink relied on cold temperatures to keep the flooded ice surface intact. But the unpredictability of winter weather made planning difficult and shortened the potential operating season.

Renovations to the rink’s main building were completed last year, and include more and larger changing rooms, more restrooms, an expanded rental area (including concessions) and larger viewing rooms on the second floor. The rooms can be rented for events.

The push for permanent ice began in 2003, when the rink’s board secured a $395,000 matching grant from the state to build the existing facility, which was completed in 2007. The ice-making equipment and upgraded facilities were made possible by another state grant, which was matched by local contributions of cash, labor and materials.

The rink’s new concrete surface was used for roller skating last summer.