Tim Whyte | Coronavirus and Losing Our Ice

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I’m gutted.

I’m of course feeling down for the same reasons as most folks, and being in the news business, I feel immersed in every latest development with COVID-19. Working at home, I’ve got the same cabin fever as any responsible citizen who’s trying to comply with the stay-at-home orders and avoid contracting or spreading a deadly virus.

On top of that, I’m also — a little selfishly — broken-hearted about a particular business that has closed, apparently permanently, citing the impacts of the coronavirus. 

It was our community’s only ice rink. 

Ice Station Valencia was like a second home for my family the past 20 years. I’ve written about it before: I played hockey there, and so did my son, for most of his youth. I coached Luc’s teams there when he was young enough that a “dad coach” was a viable option, and we built many great memories at our hometown rink. 

After Luc finished high school, we spent many nights there watching him compete as a member of the Valencia Flyers, an under-21 Junior A team. During that time, Luc worked in Ice Station’s pro shop, his first real job, sharpening skates and fitting little kids for their first set of hockey gear. 

We were among the thousands who considered Ice Station an important part of our lives. Having traveled to hockey tournaments across North America, we felt fortunate that our hometown rink was one of the three or four nicest facilities in the entire state. 

It was starting to show its age, though. 

Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic visited itself upon the Santa Clarita Valley, turning all our lives upside down, Ice Station announced a two-week closure for renovations. They were going to melt the ice, repaint the lines and logos beneath the skating surface — something a rink should do periodically — and upgrade the cooling equipment. 

“Good,” I thought at the time. “It’s overdue, and many businesses are getting ready to close down for a while anyway so we can all socially distance. Good timing. Glad they’re investing in it.”

It soon became obvious that the social distancing shutdowns were going to be anything but brief, and barely a week into the stay-at-home order, the news broke:

Ice Station was closing permanently. The coronavirus shutdown and resulting loss of business was cited as the reason. 

Conspiracy theorists might wonder (more than a few have): That was awful quick, wasn’t it? How do you go from “we’re renovating” to “we’re closed forever” in less than two weeks? Was the rink on its way out anyway?

I want to think not. The rink did a brisk business, particularly on weekends when hockey leagues would have ice slots booked from morning to night. But running an ice rink is expensive. If nothing else, imagine the electric bills. Anyone who’s ever had a kid in figure skating or hockey can attest that ice time is expensive. 

I could see the prospects of even a monthlong shutdown having a devastating effect. 

So what now? That’s my fear, not only for my family — I was looking forward to another season or two of beer league hockey with my son when he came home from college — but also for the many others who value the Ice Station for the sports they love. 

How many kids will never take up skating or hockey because there’s no longer a decent rink within a 45-minute drive?

How many adults will put away their hockey gear for good, because they can’t drive an hour each way after work to play in a distant beer league?

I know. Right now, not having an ice rink is the least of our worries. But my heart hurts over this one. So much so that I did something this week I never do in my role as editor of the local paper: 

I signed a petition. 

It’s a change.org petition asking the city of Santa Clarita and the NHL’s L.A. Kings to save Ice Station, or presumably at least bring something similar to another local site. The petition gathered 15,000-plus signatures in less than a week, and that first batch has been sent to Santa Clarita City Hall. As of Friday, it was about to hit 20,000 signatures.

The city and the Kings are considered by many to be the best prospects for keeping an ice rink in the SCV. It’s hard to disagree with that thinking. 

An Ice Station employee hijacked the rink’s Facebook page last week and wrote an impassioned plea to the community. He laid out the likely options, including a buyer who will continue to operate the rink as-is (not likely any time soon), a rescue from the city or the Kings, or some combination, perhaps even moving the equipment to a cheaper location than the prime real estate occupied by what used to be the Ice Station. 

Time is of the essence, he said, because right now the equipment is just sitting there, waiting to be used, or bought and relocated. It could end up close by — or not. 

That’s the thing. Even though COVID-19 is clearly the most important thing on everyone’s plate right now, if too much time passes before someone takes action, the SCV will lose its rink, for good.

Three words from my PR consulting past come to mind: public-private partnership?

I hope the city and the Kings — both of which obviously have bigger fish to fry at this moment in history — will at some point soon listen to the pleas of the thousands who want to save the ice. 

I know a strictly municipal ice rink is a tall order, even though it’s a common model in colder climates. Ice is expensive, especially in a locale where the cooling units fight to keep the ice from melting when outside temperatures hit triple digits in July and August. 

But here’s what’s different about the ice community compared to those who ask local government for something cheaper, like a skateboard park, a soccer field or a basketball court: They’re willing to help pay for it. And they know it won’t be cheap. 

Hockey people, figure skating people, and even curling clubs, recognize ice is expensive and they know it will cost them. Whatever investment anyone puts into making ice available, those who use it recognize that paying for it is part of the deal. 

The SCV is a great market for those things. Hockey is, perhaps quietly, very popular here. 

Does that mean it will pencil out? Maybe not. But I hope those who are capable of doing something about it will give it serious consideration. 

Obviously, saving lives is Priority No. 1 right now. But when the COVID-19 dust settles, I hope someone will save the ice, too. 

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column usually appears on Sundays.

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