2018-02-10 / News

Ice Rink Helps Youth Build Skills, Brings Commmunity Together

By Jacob A. Ball

The hockey program focuses on teaching children basic skills related to the sport, including ice-skating. Several children participate Thursday, January 25, including (right, from front) Madison Gamble, Vincent Davis, Lakelyn Bunker; (left) Jadyn Rickley, Anna Kaminen, and Makayla Rickley. (Photograph by Justin Wright) The hockey program focuses on teaching children basic skills related to the sport, including ice-skating. Several children participate Thursday, January 25, including (right, from front) Madison Gamble, Vincent Davis, Lakelyn Bunker; (left) Jadyn Rickley, Anna Kaminen, and Makayla Rickley. (Photograph by Justin Wright) An outdoor skating rink east of Fort Mackinac provides a place for children to learn new skills and a community gathering place during the quiet winter months. Over the last few years, the hockey and skating programs have become highly anticipated activities for the children. Organizers say the ice rink and the benefits it offers would not be possible without the support provided by the community.

Many of the children have become accomplished skaters since the rink’s inception in 2015. Hockey instructor Justin Wright, a state park ranger, said he has been amazed by the progress many of the children have made. During the hockey program, Mr. Wright works with the youth on skating and hockey techniques, and he emphasizes safety and teamwork.

The construction of the rink has evolved over the years as additional funding, equipment, and volunteers have become available. Weather conditions dictate the quality of the skating surface, and the rink’s lifespan has varied from weeks to months in past winters. The rink is constructed and maintained by the staff of the state park.

The ice rink is open for use anytime throughout the winter, weather permitting, with an afterschool skating program every Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. and a hockey program every Thursday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. There are Twilight Skates scheduled for Saturday, February 17, Saturday, March 3, and Saturday, March 17, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. A special Twilight Skate only for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders will be Saturday, February 24, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

For the children, the program provides an opportunity for outdoor recreation. The skills they learn are not limited to the hockey rink, as children can be taught many life skills through group activities, as well. Learning how to cooperate in a team setting, or how to deal with stressful situations, is common on the hockey rink, and Mr. Wright wants hockey to be an opportunity to learn these lessons early. Mr. Wright hopes that their experience with the ice rink as children will encourage their active participation in the community as adults.

Community interactions take place at the skating rink. As parents chat while watching practice, and friends visit during Twilight Skate on a Saturday night, the ice rink serves as a place for people to come together.

Donations of helmets, skates, hockey sticks, and training equipment have come from the Mackinac Island Community Foundation, park staff, and Brad Chambers. Every child is given their own skates and helmet for the season, which they can take home. The state park has provided lighting for nighttime activities, along with building and maintaining the rink.

The dedication and support of the parents has been essential to the success of the programs, and many parents will bring their children to the rink multiple times per week. Mr. Wright said he has even had some parents arrive early to help him shovel snow off the rink.

“They are always asking me what they can do to help, which is amazing because we need a lot of help,” he said.

He is also pleased that many of the parents stay at the rink to watch the children practice.

Each practice begins with half an hour of training in techniques. In the first winter of the rink, many participants did not know how to skate properly, according to Mr. Wright, and now that the skill has been learned, hockeyspecific instruction is now the emphasis of the program.

“They have picked up and retained so much,” he says, “and a lot of the parents have told me the same.”

Recent practices have focused on teaching stick and puck handling, passing, and shooting. He does not claim to be a hockey professional, but that he tries to maintain a consistent structure for each week. This structure helps the children to anticipate what is coming next, and retain the skills they learn better.

During the second half-hour of the hockey program, the children are split into two teams, which then play hockey against each other. This is the highlight of every Thursday night for the youth, Mr. Wright says, and often they have tried to negotiate for more time spent playing hockey. Recently though, the children have begun to understand the value of the drills.

“They are realizing that the drills are actually helping them” become better hockey players, he said.

Safety is of utmost importance to Mr. Wright when on the ice, especially when teaching a group that ranges in age from first grade to teenagers. During the scrimmages, no high-sticking or slap shots are allowed, and anyone caught breaking the rules is sent to the penalty box. The players also cannot bump or push, and he is teaching them to be cautious and aware of other skaters on the ice.

Flooding the Rink

The first major improvement to the rink was the use of a liner and frame in 2016, which made for a much simpler construction process. The year before, the first rink was built using only a garden hose and a field, and it took a several weeks to get a solid base. The process now begins by leveling the ground and constructing a wooden frame to encase the ice. Once this is complete, the plastic liner is laid down, and then the rink is ready to be flooded.

Each year the park staff encounter different obstacles to creating a quality skating rink. Last winter, delays caused by unseasonably warm temperatures limited the rink to only about two weeks of use. The early deep freeze in December 2017 interrupted the construction of this year’s rink, however, the state park staff still had it completed for the official opening January 6.

Once the rink is built, maintaining the surface is a constant team effort. Each staff member has their own technique to resurface the ice. On sunny days, the lines created by skates are leveled off naturally by melting. Otherwise, Mr. Wright uses a hose to spray a very thin layer of water, only a couple of millimeters, over the surface, which is then spread evenly with a smoothing tool. Another employee uses a spray attachment on the hose, so that no smoothing is needed. Shoveling snow and resurfacing the rink can take up to 90 minutes, but Mr. Wright says the excitement of the children makes it all worth it.

“All of the workers are up there because they know how much it means to the children,” he said.

Before the rink closes for the season, he hopes to host a threeon three hockey tournament for the community. This event has taken place in past years, with many community members participating. He said it is a good opportunity to expose more people to the rink, and is a fun way to spend time outdoors in the winter.

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