Outdoor community rink honors foundation of hockey for many

Local Columbus hockey players took to the outdoor community rink at the Blue Jackets All-Star Winter Park for a morning drop-in hockey session.

Chuck Scott

As the city of Columbus prepares to host the 2015 NHL All-Star Weekend, one of the crown jewels that have been built for the event is an outdoor community rink in the All-Star Winter Park. It is the first to ever be built for an All-Star Game and for those who love hockey, it’s provided an opportunity not just to skate, but also to connect with the roots of the game itself.

Martin Spanhel, former Columbus Blue Jacket and current director of the Columbus Adult Hockey League (CAHL), said it’s amazing to offer the opportunity for people to skate outdoors. As the rink went up, it reminded him of growing up in the Czech Republic and learning to play hockey on outdoor rinks formed in the courtyards of condominium complexes.

"It brings back memories of when I was starting to play," Spanhel said. "There was a basketball court where I lived and we’d take hoses from basements and the boys would spray it with water every night. It froze overnight and made a nice layer of ice. We’d find wooden boards that people threw away (for sideboards), and we had a real net."

It was playing on that homemade rink that drove Spanhel to tell his parents that he really wanted to play hockey and now he’ll be back skating outdoors Thursday with other Jackets alumni. He says he can’t wait.

Many professional hockey players have similar stories of starting to skate on a pond or backyard rink, but the outdoor ice calls up memories for hockey players at all skill levels.

Bexley’s Chad Eddy started playing hockey at age seven when his parents had to force him on to the ice. A Columbus resident since 1998, and a Blue Jackets fan since the team’s inception, Eddy jumped at the chance to play on the community rink.

"Having grown up playing in Chicago and playing some in Detroit, I’ve played outdoors quite a bit," Eddy said. "Being able to skate outside brought back all sorts of memories for me: my brothers and I would freeze our driveway in the winters so we could skate outdoors and shoot pucks into snow banks. We would drive around looking for a frozen pond to skate on."

Last Friday, at 6 a.m., Eddy stepped onto the ice in the Winter Park with friends he’s made through the years at a weekly morning hockey drop-in session. What made the session special to Eddy was that it married the old-fashioned tradition of outdoor hockey with more recent luxuries of NHL hockey.

ALL-STAR COVERAGE

"Playing hockey outdoors on a regulation rink with boards, blue lines, benches and real nets was a special occasion," Eddy said. "Typically playing outdoors means skating on a frozen pond, which doesn’t come with anything but the ice."

Eddy said that the time outdoors was so much fun, the rink staff had to kick them off the ice when their time was up because they just didn’t want to leave.

"It was a crisp 20 degrees the morning we played," Eddy said. "This was exactly as it should be. It was a great group of guys – younger and older – playing hockey for fun and enjoying being outdoors playing the game we all love to play."

When it was first conceptualized, the community rink was intended to get as many people as possible involved in All-Star Weekend even if they didn’t step inside Nationwide Arena for any of the formal events.

BLUE JACKETS ALL-STARS

Jackets’ partnership activation manager Becky Magaw said the Jackets wanted All-Star Weekend to be as inclusive as possible and providing the chance to skate outdoors was a perfect opportunity. The rink schedule shows that in addition to 38 public skating sessions, hockey is being played outdoors regularly.

"All five local youth hockey organizations have skate times," Magaw said. "Ohio sled hockey was on the ice. Community organizations, USA Hockey, and local High Schools each got a block of time."

One of those skate times includes a clinic this Saturday that is being put on in conjunction with USA Hockey and the NHL. Spanhel will be an instructor and helped coordinate the event for local CAHL captains at the D and E levels.

"All of the spots were taken in five minutes," Spanhel said. "It’s really about the opportunity to be on the rink and we as coaches will do our best to teach the players a few new things."

LOOKING BACK

While the All-Star Game is the focus, it’s special elements like the community rink that are feeding not only local involvement but also love of the sport, its origins and the city’s NHL team.

"You hope that people come downtown and have an amazing time," Magaw said. "We’re getting feedback from people whose kids have never skated before and they are loving it and those moments are what create that lifelong lover of hockey and skating and hopefully (the Blue Jackets)."

Follow Alison on Twitter at @AlisonL