Skating rinks bring spirit of season to Western Pa.
By Doug Gulasy
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 9:00 p.m.
Temperatures neared 60 degrees on the first day of December, but that didn't stop Michael Maiello from renewing an old winter tradition — and possibly starting a new one.
Maiello took a trip to the ice skating rink in South Park, just as he did when he was growing up. He took his son for his first skating lesson.
“I grew up here, so I love coming back here,” Maiello, 37, of Peters said on Saturday while watching Anthony, 4, skate unsteadily in the children's rink.
“He's doing pretty good for his first time,” Maiello added as his son — wearing a hockey helmet — made his way toward the center of the ice.
Ice skating has long been a winter tradition for residents of the Pittsburgh region, and the number of outdoor ice rinks continues to increase.
“I've talked to patrons who come to our facilities — their grandparents came there, their parents did and now they're bringing their children there,” said Clarence Hopson, deputy director of the Allegheny County Parks Department, which oversees the rinks in North and South parks.
The South Park rink opened in 1968 and the North Park rink soon afterward. The Schenley Park rink opened in 1975.
Outdoor ice skating became more popular when the rink at PPG Plaza, Downtown, opened in 2001. Harry Datz, general manager at the rink, said it welcomed 38,000 skaters in its opening year, a number that grew to 61,000 in the 2011-12 season.
“It's popular because it's centrally located,” Datz said. “It's easily accessible, and the holiday atmosphere down here at PPG Place is just unbeatable. It's been a catalyst for a lot of the areas — Market Square, the Cultural District and whatnot.”
Datz said other rinks in the city help the rink at PPG Place to attract skaters. Although such competition would seem counterintuitive, he said, the PPG Place rink benefits when people are comparing facilities and nearby amenities.
The most notable of the other rink choices is Penguins Pond, which debuted for the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field and will open Dec. 14 at Highmark Station in Station Square.
The Penguins' success also helped drive up interest in youth hockey and ice skating in general, local rink officials said.
“The success of the Penguins — I think that's also caused an increase in the skating, but I think basically it's just a traditional thing in this area,” Hopson said.
But at least one such official is keeping a close eye on the NHL lockout.
“It does make a difference when there's hockey going,” said Mirella Ranallo, supervisor of the Schenley Skating rink. “People get excited when they see hockey being played on TV or going to the games. There's no hockey this year, and it's probably going to affect us.”
Municipalities are getting into the ice skating business.
Seven Fields borough council recently approved the purchase of an outdoor ice skating rink at a cost of less than $4,000.
Borough Manager Tom Smith said the feedback since council approved the purchase on Nov. 26 was “amazing.”
“It's almost like a firework show in Western Pennsylvania,” he said. “I'm hearing from different communities emailing me about our ice rink. Within Seven Fields, there's quite a bit of excitement and anticipation.”
Smith said he expects the rink to be delivered this week, and it should be erected by mid-December, weather-permitting.
Naturally, the weather affects rinks' business. Hopson said as long as the temperatures stay in the 60s during the afternoon, the North and South Park rinks usually get good business. If the temperatures reach higher, the ice becomes soft.
Ranallo said the mild 2011-12 winter negatively affected business.
“When the temperature is high and the sun is out, the ice is soft,” Ranallo said. “There was a few times we had to close during the day sessions. Once the sun goes down, the evening sessions are good, but you lose your attendance during the day sessions.”
There are plenty of indoor options in the region.
Most rinks in Western Pennsylvania are open or are scheduled to open soon, and they'll close for the season at varying times through March.
Rink officials hope have good attendance the season, and people from the area are likely to make that happen.
That includes Barb O'Leary of Upper St. Clair, who went to the rink at South Park as a child and whose daughter, Kelsey, held a half-birthday party at the rink on Dec. 1.
“She loves coming here,” O'Leary said. “It's fun to have my daughter come back and experience something I did many years ago.”
Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Contact him at 412-380-8527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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