When Olympic hopeful Tonya Harding had her competitor Nancy Kerrigan's knees whacked prior to the 1994 games, sports fans gasped, tabloid headlines raced, and local ice rinks found themselves flooded with business.
"I was a skating school teacher when Harding-Kerrigan happened," said Lisa Sekata, now general manager of the Iceoplex rink in North Hills. "While we usually have 600 to 700 kids in a session, we had more than a thousand around the time that happened. It was the same when the Kings were in the Stanley Cup championship a few years ago."
Feeding off debacles and spectacles alike, ice skating has seen a resurgence in the past few years that seems to have turned around what had for long been a decline in the popularity of Los Angeles area rinks.
The Iceoplex in North Hills, opened in 1992, later to become the Los Angeles Kings' practice facility, was the county's first rink to be built in some 30 years, according to Brad Becken, vice president of finance for Ice Specialty Entertainment Inc. in Van Nuys, the umbrella organization for seven Iceoplex rinks around the country.
Since then, rinks have been built in Simi Valley, Huntington Beach, Anaheim, and one is now under construction in Panorama City.
"This rise in ice rinks all began with the popularity of rollerblades in the late 1980s and early 1990s," said Sean McGillivary, owner of the Easy Street Arena in Simi Valley, which opened in 1994. "Those people progress into playing street hockey and then into ice hockey."
Rink owners and managers say that even when business is not receiving a jolt during and after an Olympic year, or from the rise of a local hero like Torrance's Michelle Kwan, ice time is tight and business is steady.
Most rinks say their ice is typically occupied until 2 a.m. in the winter and until midnight in the summer months. During winter sports seasons, rinks may see weekends of round-the-clock use.
And when those activities finish for the day or the season ends, the Culver City Ice Arena has other late night activities such as "broom ball," a shoes-on-ice game popular with college and high school students who use brooms instead of hockey sticks and balls instead of pucks.
In addition to that, late night ice time is periodically bought by professional skaters swooping through town; for example, Dorothy Hamill sometimes practices at the Culver rink when she is in Los Angeles.
As of now, it appears that the Los Angeles area market still has room for more ice.
"We'll be opening in August, but already we're getting lots of calls from people wanting to book ice time," said Alan Deglin, a projects director at Recreation World Inc., parent company of Ice Chalet Inc., which is spending $2.5 million to convert a defunct Panorama City bowling alley into an ice rink. The facility is meant to replace a North Hollywood Ice Chalet destroyed in the 1994 quake.
Deglin said the company chose Panorama City for its new rink because it is "heavily residential, though there is not much in the way of family entertainment in the area. Plus the mayor's Business Team is targeting the area for improvement."
As the 1998 winter Olympics approach, rink officials believe ice time will grow even tighter, mainly because of the growing popularity of ice sports among women.
"For the first time, women's hockey will be an Olympic sport," said Sekata, "which is probably going to bring in a lot more girls."
Local enthusiasts say the number of rinks in the L.A.-Orange County area dwindled from 50 or so in the late 1960s to about 30 today largely because lagging interest and rising land values in the late 1980s led many rink owners to close their doors and convert to other uses.
Whether the reborn popularity of rinks will lead to many more rinks is not yet clear.
The cost for a rink and its cooling system is usually around $300,000 to $400,000, according to one supplier. So depending whether a complex will house one or two ice rinks, perhaps a roller rink and other forms of entertainment such as arcades and restaurants, the cost of a new arena can vary widely. The Easy Street Arena, with two ice rinks and a roller rink, built in the shell of an old building, cost $3.5 million. Sebastian, the rink consultant, said he has helped companies who built rinks in tents for less than $1 million.
While the rinks often require a great deal of overhead, and utility bills for the ice can be high, busy rinks these days often earn about 12 percent a year on their investments, according to Mike Sebastian, president of Center Ice Consultants, a rink development firm in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"In a lot of areas throughout the nation, people are finding that ice rinks can be good investments," Sebastian said. He explained that until a few years ago, municipalities had commonly been proprietors of local ice rinks. However, frustrated over scarce ice time, people began pooling money and building rinks with civic as well as investment purposes in mind.
Sebastian said insurance for the rinks is not a major expenditure. First, he said, the need for coverage is often mitigated by the standard practice of requiring that waivers be signed by amateur hockey league players the skaters most prone to on-ice injuries and that insurance rates have even decreased in recent years due to competition among insurers.
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