In the land of windchills and snowbanks — and dare we say the State of Hockey — the words sound almost blasphemous.
Outdoor rinks in the Twin Cities are drawing fewer skaters, and some are closing — and it’s not just because of this year’s frigid weather.
“It’s down — it’s not like it used to be,” said Gregg Engle, Coon Rapids’ parks and recreation supervisor. Coon Rapids closed more than half of its outdoor ice rinks six years ago because they were not being used, and the suburb needed to save money.
In Maple Grove, the city counted more than 32,000 users of city ice rinks during winter 1992-93, but in the two decades since the figure has topped 25,000 only twice. Two years ago, just 11,427 skaters used the city’s eight ice rinks. In Shoreview, while dozens swam in an indoor city water park on a cold Wednesday in late February, the nearby outdoor ice skating rinks were dark and deserted. A sign in the window of a warming house, which features a fireplace, said it had already closed for the season.
Farmington is trying to get back to the levels it last saw in 2010, and was unable to keep its warming houses open longer this year because it could not find enough residents to keep them staffed. Even in West St. Paul, where city official Dave Schletty said the most popular outdoor ice rinks were still being regularly used, he conceded that “it’s not the use we’ve seen 10 years ago — it’s definitely less.”
The struggle to get more people skating contrasts with some of the more publicized efforts to highlight Minnesota’s love of all things outdoors. When the University of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team played a game outside at TCF Bank Stadium on a near-zero night in January, more than 45,000 fans attended, and many applauded the back-to-basics value of outdoor hockey.
The reasons for the lowered numbers are plentiful: More indoor arenas have been built, changing demographics — especially in Minneapolis and St. Paul — have meant the arrival of more minorities who are unfamiliar with or uninterested in the sport, and more parents are no longer willing to allow children to skate unsupervised at a city rink.
Still others point to the popularity of back-yard ice rinks. Stores now sell a custom 20-by-40-foot “Rink-In-A-Box” for as low as $340.
Then there is youth hockey itself, where registrations especially for the youngest players have dipped. Minnesota Hockey, an umbrella group that had 53,935 players registered statewide in 2012-13, saw participation suddenly drop by 500 last year to 16,100 for players age 8 and under.
Minnesota Hockey president Dave Margenau attributed the decline to the economy and concerns over injuries, but said registrations for players age 8 and under grew slightly again this year. This age group, he said, is pivotal because it shows how many children are playing hockey at the entry level.
Margenau downplayed any signs that few people are skating outdoors. “I think there’s kind of a myth that there aren’t as many kids skating outdoors,” he said. “Now, I don’t have hard statistics.”
The image of skaters on outdoor rinks — at least for now — endures. The Minnesota State High School League, as part of its promotion for this week’s state boys high school hockey tournament, has long used iconic drawings of young boys skating on outdoor ponds in rural and neighborhood settings.
But for some there is a feeling that something is missing or has changed. Margenau in fact participated in a “hockey summit” last fall in Ramsey County to try to resurrect interest in hockey — both outside and indoors.
Erik Qvale, a city recreation coordinator in Shoreview, looked out at the empty skating rink last week next to the city’s Tropics Indoor Waterpark and said he had no answers. This year, said Qvale, who played hockey in high school and college, is the first time “since I was, like, 3 years old” that he had not skated outside even once this winter.
Even as National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman strongly hinted this week that an outdoor NHL game in Minnesota could happen soon, some metro-area cities were tallying the effect of a harsh winter on outdoor skating.
At Prior Lake’s Lakefront Park, average daily attendance fell from 346 skaters a year ago to just 161 this winter. As Prior Lake’s outdoor rinks were set to close amid another cold weekend, city officials counted 155 skaters last Saturday — and just 26 on Sunday.
“Attendance has been strong,” Angie Barstad, the city’s recreation coordinator, nevertheless said. The park has one “pleasure” skating rink and two hockey rinks, one of which is frequently used by a youth hockey association, she said.
Although the numbers are down from 10 years ago, Ted Kronschnabel said there is still plenty of outdoor skating in West St. Paul. He is a director of the Sibley Area Youth Hockey Association, where the mites and mini-mite players even on cold nights in January and February tried to skate outdoors at least once a week at Harmon Park. “They really enjoy it because it’s a new experience every time,” he said.
Demand just not there
But there are plenty of troubling signs for outdoor skating. In Minnetonka, Steen Erickson has worked as a city ice-rink volunteer for seven years, extending the hours at nearby Boulder Creek Park when skaters were plentiful. Now, “it’s just not that way,” he said of the demand. “My going down to the ice warming house to open [it], it’s been less this year than ever before,” Erickson added.
Then there is Cottage Grove, where the city closed four outdoor skating rinks seven years ago. Though there has recently been somewhat of an uptick in skaters, “it’s still certainly not what it was maybe 15-20 years ago,” said Zac Dockter, the city’s park and recreation director.
For some, the answer is to simply go outside — and not be intimidated by the weather.
Chad Miller has both a back-yard rink and a pond rink at his home in Cottage Grove, and he’s frustrated that other hockey parents do not let their children skate outdoors.
“People think I’m crazy sending my kids out in 15-below weather,” he said. But “if you’re active, you’re moving and don’t have a lot of exposed skin, [you’re actually] going to get hot.”