Hawks’ success translates into ice-time crunch at local rinks
BY STEVE METSCH AND TINA AKOURIS Staff writers January 3, 2014 9:12PM
Updated: February 6, 2014 6:30AM
The Blackhawks have won two Stanley Cups since 2010 and are flying high again this season. So it should come as no surprise that scads of kids and adults alike, swept up in success, have adopted playing hockey or just skating as a red-hot, ice-cool thing to do.
But for many who have caught the fever and become local rink regulars, there’s a downside: Trying to get ice time is not always a nice time.
Demand is high, as high school teams, amateur leagues — and more girls teams, too — vie for time with people playing pickup games and even casual skaters and figure skaters.
So it’s good news for all of them that the Chicago Park District plans to build a $12 million indoor ice arena in the Morgan Park community.
City officials in October announced that the park district would build and run the Morgan Park Sports Center, a 55,000-square-foot ice rink and gymnastics facility, on vacant property at 115th Street and Western Avenue. Construction is to begin this year and take about one year to complete, officials said.
The ice rink will be a state-of-the-art facility allowing for year-round skating and hockey on an NHL regulation-size rink with bleacher seating for 1,200.
Frank DiCristina, president of the Southwest Ice Arena in Crestwood, who is doing some free consulting for the project, knows all too well about the need for more ice in the Southland. He handles bookings for his arena and also the ice arena operated by the Oak Lawn Park District, both of which are “booked solid,” he said.
“Years ago, there were four rinks in the area: Southwest, Oak Lawn, Homewood-Flossmoor and Bridgeview, which closed in 2009,” he said. “When that happened, all those customers came to us. They struggled and panicked and went all over the place to get ice.
“The Hawks won the Cup in 2010, and we saw a huge increase in people out there wanting ice. Then they won it again in 2013,” DiCristina said. “There’s a defininte need for ice time, for sure. Hockey is crazy now in Chicago because of the Blackhawks. It will continue to be crazy because they have a good team. There’s more and more kids playing the sport. Another new thing is a lot more girls and women playing hockey.”
That’s why he strongly suggested that the rink in the Morgan Park community should include a women’s locker room.
“I give some of the credit to the Blackhawks, but it’s been increasing for years and the Blackhawks just pushed (the interest) a little farther,” DiCristina said. “Everybody’s a Hawks fan and they love it.”
The demand is there even though ice time isn’t cheap. The H-F Ice Arena, for instance, charges $320 per hour for rink use, according to assistant manager Teri Michor, whether it’s an individual or team renting out the ice. It fetches that much even though the price hasn’t gone up in five years, Michor said.
Amateur Hockey Association Illinois president John Dunne said youth hockey has grown since the Hawks won the two Cups and he expects the numbers to increase this year because of the Winter Olympics and the continued popularity of the Hawks.
Mike Moro, president of the St. Jude Hockey Club, which is based in Crestwood, said the league has about 300 kids, about double the number from six years ago. The club has been buying ice time wherever it can find some.
“We’ve seen interest increase, even with the younger kids. We have more than 40 in our learn-to-skate class. We’re not used to seeing numbers that robust,” Moro said.
Because of the high demand for ice time, St. Jude books time at Crestwood, Oak Lawn, Downers Grove and Johnny’s Ice House on Chicago’s West Side near the United Center.
“My uncle owns Johnny’s, but even with that the best we can do is one hour a week,” Moro said with a laugh. “That’s how busy it is.”
He said it’s good that a rink will open in the Morgan Park community since it will create more ice time for more skaters. DiCristina agreed, saying it may wind up increasing demand at existing rinks.
Asked whether Southwest Ice Arena might expand, DiCristina joked that he is looking for investors.
“All I need is $1.5 million,” he said.
But expansion is definitely a possibility for the St. Jude Knights Hockey Club beyond its 22 teams, Moro said.
“We may start an all-girls team because demand is up for girls hockey,” he said. “We don’t want to turn anyone away from playing the sport. We are excited about the new rink and being able to expand.”
New arena welcome
Chicago Ald. Matt O’Shea, D-19th, also is excited about the new ice arena. When he ran for office a few years ago, a big question was “What are you going to do about 115th and Western?” The intersection has been vacant “since before the Bears won the Super Bowl (in the 1985 season),” O’Shea said.
“To give you some perspective, this will be 55,000 square feet. Southwest (Ice Arena) is about 36,000 square feet,” O’Shea said.
With a son who plays youth hockey, he knows all about demand.
“They’re even renting outdoor rinks for games,” he said. “A lot of it is because of the Blackhawks’ success.”
The new rink also could mean more sales for restaurants and stores in the 19th Ward, he said.
Hockey player and eighth-grader Aidan Morrisey, 14, of Palos Heights, welcomes having another arena in the mix. He routinely has practices and/or games at 9 p.m. on school nights because there’s nothing else available.
“Sometimes I have to travel to Oak Lawn to practice or play,” he said.
He’ll attend Marist for high school, a short drive from the future rink in the 19th Ward. So he’s excited about traveling less and, hopefully, playing more.
Amy Paladin, of Crestwood, who brings daughter Frankie, 9, to skate on the smaller rink at Southwest, also said there’s a need for more ice. Son Tommy, 7, plays hockey, coping with 7 a.m. practices on weekends.
“Public skate is always super crowded,” Paladin said. “People are jumping on the Blackhawks bandwagon.”
The cost for the public skate is $6 per person for an hour, and another $3 for skate rental.
Playing hockey, by comparison, isn’t cheap. Paladin said she pays $300 per month so Tommy can play hockey “and that doesn’t include equipment.”
At The Rocket Ice Arena in Bolingbrook, there’s a group of guys who skate every Friday night in an over-50 men’s hockey league. Rink owner Ed Schroeder likes to call it “Hockey 5-0” — a takeoff on the television series “Hawaii Five-O.”
“Has it grown? Sure it has,” Schroeder said. “There are over 40 guys who play 52 weeks a year (in the over-50 league), and we have a ladies hockey team called Mayhem that plays two nights a week, 52 weeks a year.”
Schroeder said most of the adults who play pick-up games and in leagues at Rocket Ice usually play from after 9 p.m. until about midnight.
The rink also has been more involved with the Hawks in the wake of their championships. In both title-winning seasons — 2010 and 2013 — the Hawks chose Rocket Ice for their annual youth summer camp with former Hawks Troy Murray, Denis Savard and Eddie Olczyk.
“It was awesome to have them around the rink,” Schroeder said. “They chose us in March and each year they just kept winning. What were the odds of that happening?”
Schroeder said the Hawks mascot, Tommy Hawk, is to appear there from 1 to 2 p.m. Feb. 23.
But even minus the appearances, Schroeder wouldn’t have to go far to see how the team has affected people in the area.
“I go to public skate a lot at Rocket and I have seen more Hawks jerseys recently than I ever have in my life,” he said.
Go figure (skating)
Figure skating coach Mary Alice Antensteiner, of Romeoville, crosses her fingers each year when her contract with the Darien Sportsplex comes up.
Even though there are two large ice arenas nearby — Rocket Ice and Canlan Ice Sports in Romeoville — Antensteiner has stuck with the Sportsplex because it offers her the best ice times to train her skaters.
But Antensteiner also has to travel to other rinks for ice time.
“We also go to a variety of other rinks in the area and a lot of it depends on ice time and rink availability,” Antensteiner said. “We go to Center Ice in Glen Ellyn, Arctic Ice Arena in Orland Park, Southwest Ice Arena in Crestwood; but Darien is my everyday, prime rink because of the amount of ice availability they have for figure skating.
“Hockey is so prevalent that we lose ice a lot.”
It has gotten even more popular with the Hawks’ success, which is driving up the interest level for both boys and girls, she said.
“Hockey in this area is just bursting out at the seams,” Antensteiner said. “Any rink that I go to, there is hockey everywhere. So you’ve got the (Hawks’ success) going on and now you’ve got young girls involved in hockey now. Nowadays, girls can make a choice: ‘Do I want to be a figure skater or a hockey player?’ ”
Many local park districts also have ice rinks, the drawback being that outdoor rinks are at the weather’s mercy.