Miracle On Ice -Winter 2017

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Every Wednesday morning from early September through February, the Island Waves synchronized skating team arrives at the rink off Backus Lane before the sun rises. Its nine girls, ages 9-16, skate in unison for over an hour, carving precision patterns in the ice under the watchful eye of a pair of coaches while the majority of the island is still asleep.

On Monday and Thursday afternoons during the school year, around 100 kids head straight from class to the rink, where they strap on skates and circle the ice, laughing with friends and stretching legs that have been confined beneath a desk for most of the day.

In any given week, the rink also hosts the Nantucket High School hockey team’s games and practices, men’s and women’s hockey games and a thriving youth-hockey program whose teams have won state and regional championships, learn-to-skate classes for children as young as 3, classes and summer camps for both hockey players and figure skaters, and even a curling club.

Welcome to Nantucket Ice.

“Hockey played such an important role in my life, I can’t imagine what it would be like without a rink. When the idea was first introduced to build one on Nantucket, it was really exciting to me. It seemed like it was a no-brainer,” said Nantucket-born A.J. Mleczko, goldand silver medal-winning U.S. Olympic women’s hockey player, who for a decade hosted the Charity on Ice celebrity hockey game at Nantucket Ice to help the rink pay down its debt and meet expenses. The event brought former Olympic skaters like “Miracle on Ice” goalie Jim Craig and gold medalist Dorothy Hamill to the island.

“It goes without saying, year-round people truly gain the value of having a rink. For me, growing up in Connecticut it was a place to gather in bad weather in New England, a place for school-age kids to go. It was really smart where they placed the rink, within walking distance of the schools. It’s a place to gather, to be with friends, to be social. Parents can put their minds at ease. It’s healthy recreation: hockey, figure skating, general skating, little kids learning a sport. It may not ultimately be their favorite, but to see a kid skate for the first time, to stand up on skates and move, with a smile on their face, I love that that opportunity is available to Nantucket.”

After nearly a decade of planning by a core group of supporters including Mleczko’s mother Bambi, and more than $4 million in fundraising, Nantucket Ice opened its doors in 2002. Today, more than 1,000 skaters a year use the rink. It is often open seven days a week for more than 12 hours a day.

“It’s such a gem on this island. It offers so many opportunities for kids. Every time I go in the rink, I feel it. I didn’t grow up in a rink, but to see the kids I coach come through the program, making progress not just in the sport of hockey, but as kids becoming adolescents, to see the impact team sports has had is a really neat thing,” said Devin Remick, president of the rink’s board of directors.

“At the beginning, I wasn’t all that familiar with the rink. Then I started playing a little bit of hockey, and now I don’t know what I’d do without it. It saved my life, actually. It got me in shape, and it’s done wonders for our youth,” Remick said.

Bambi Mleczko, who spearheaded the early fundraising and organizational efforts, and worked side-by-side with A.J. on the Charity on Ice fundraisers, sees similar results.

“The end result is a rink for all ages. You can see it today. Before this, there was only skating on frozen ponds. When the ponds don’t freeze, there’s no skating,” she said.

“Thinking back, I feel good we were involved. The whole island came together to get it done. There’s a hugely-popular youth-hockey program, the high school has a team, there’s figure skating. When we travel around, and see some of the old rinks people are playing in, our rink here is the best. It’s well-designed, it’s holding up well. Nantucketers really love skating.”

But operating a rink on an island 30 miles out to sea doesn’t come without its challenges. Without skaters from neighboring towns and communities to rent ice time, the rink is forced to rely on fundraisers and donations to cover the $75,000 to $100,000 deficit it runs each year.

“Our struggle is the number of people on this island. How many can we get to come to the rink? We can’t draw from other communities which rinks on the mainland obviously do. The numbers are always changing, and families come and go. We have to keep an influx of young kids coming in, to keep our numbers up. If you can keep high numbers in the beginning when they are little, that filters through as they get older. But there are so many other sports out here, the competition for kids’ time is brutal. Between soccer, baseball, football and the other sports, we try to grab as many as we can,” Remick said.

An ice rink on the mainland like the Falmouth Ice Arena will typically have its ice booked from open to close seven days a week, but Nantucket Ice has gaps in its programming, especially in the spring when the ice goes unused for large chunks of time in the mid-day. Since it’s a privately-run nonprofit, it also can’t rely on taxpayer dollars to make up the difference.

“A lot of the rinks on the mainland are townowned or partially funded by municipalities. We are privately run and privately funded which is unusual for rinks,” Nantucket Ice administrator Muffin McMurrer said.

“We’ll never sell enough ice to cover our costs, and that’s unfortunate. We have to find other ways to make that money, to make up that difference. Because we are an aging facility, the mechanicals are starting to break down, and a lot of maintenance is needed. We have a dehumidifier issue now, and we’re going to have to hit it head-on. It’s going to be a $130,000 fix. In the midst of raising money to cover our annual costs, we have to figure out those things as well,” Remick said.

The rink board in 2010 decided to sell off some of its surrounding property to pay off about $500,000 in debt and establish a maintenance and upkeep fund. It was a tough decision, but a necessary one at the time, Remick said.

“A lot of people felt it was the right choice. It contributed to paying off our first mortgage, but we don’t have that cushion anymore, and there’s no way to get that type of cushion back. The alternative would have been to hold on to the land

and take on a whole lot of debt we would have had to pay interest on.”

In July, the rink held its first Summer Ice Fest – with a cookout, live music, on-ice exhibitions and raffles – and while it didn’t raise anywhere near the $100,000-$120,000 of the old Charity on Ice events, it was a start, Remick said.

“It was pretty well attended, and a lot of fun. For the first year, it’s about what I had expected. I’m hoping for more growth next year. It involved a lot of local people, and got people out who hadn’t been there in a while. They get so caught up in everything around them, they forget the rink is there. We need to remind them it’s there,” he said.

“Word of mouth is what it’s about. With parents involved, and kids talking, as long as it’s running well, and people are happy, we will get people in there. There is definitely a cycle. The numbers go up and down a little bit. I think it’s that way with any sport. You can advertise, put flyers in backpacks and send out e-mails. Kids on Ice (the Monday and Thursday after-school program) helps a lot. Kids can skate for free after school, it’s fun on the ice, no lessons. That’s really what it’s all about, getting the kids comfortable on the ice and having fun.”

The rink is also looking at innovative ways to lower costs. This spring it installed solar panels on the roof, which produce about 30 percent of the electricity it uses, saving about $25,000 a year in energy costs. Along with payroll, the electric bill – about $200,000 a year – is by far the

rink’s biggest expense. It takes a lot of juice to keep a sheet of ice frozen year-round.

If Nantucket Ice were to start falling significantly short of its fundraising goal, it could be forced to close in the spring, its least busy season. McMurrer called that a “nightmare scenario” that would hurt the rink’s most loyal users, and one its board and supporters are dedicated to avoiding if at all possible.

Mleczko agreed.

“There is now a whole generation of kids who don’t know any different. They take the rink for granted. If you lost the rink now, there would be a huge hole. I hope people understand that. Kids who are now 2 and 3, kids who are in elementary, middle and high school, whole families are using the rink. I think Nantucket is unique in that,” she said. ///

Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. His daughter Maya, a high-school sophomore, has been figure-skating at Nantucket Ice since she was 3.

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