First published in the Addison Independent on January 2, 2020
By Christopher Ross
Thanks to a collaboration between the Mount Abraham Unified School District, the Bristol Recreation Department and the Bristol Recreation Club, the Bristol skating rink on Airport Drive has been renovated and reopened for public ice skating.
“I grew up here and I haven’t seen the rink like this since I was little,” said Mandy Chesley-Park, director of the Mount Abraham Unified School District’s Expanded Learning Program (ELP), during an evening test run of the rink in late December.
As she spoke, dozens of helmeted 5-Town ELP students, along with parents, educators and community members frolicked on the ice under a dome of light while pop music played over the PA system.
Some children leaned forward on stacked milk crates or metal folding chairs, putting one foot carefully in front of the other, while others sat in the chairs and enjoyed being pushed around the rink by the adults. Some whizzed around with hockey sticks, while others — feet together and arms out for balance — appeared to move in slow motion.
One experienced pair of young skaters, graceful and meditative, wove among them all.
“This is exactly what I always want to see as a program director,” Chesley-Park said. “We’re always talking about at-risk youth surveys for fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders, where kids continue to report, even in our small towns, that they don’t feel a sense of belonging.”
She waved to a passing skater. “It’s not like this will be a cure-all, but it’s one more place where kids can come. I mean, look at all these adults. They’re bending low. They’re talking.”
Town, school and community officials had been eyeing the rink, which was built in 2001 by the Bristol Recreation Club, for a while. In September they put their heads together and came up with a plan.
“To make this successful, one of the biggest things we needed to figure out was removing the snow,” said Meridith McFarland, director of the Bristol Recreation Department. “We’ve always had people who’ve been able to lay down the ice, but when there’s too much snow and you have to snow-blow or actually shovel it by hand, people lose interest pretty fast.”
One major obstacle, quite literally, was a lamppost that stood in front of the rink’s doors, which prevented large equipment from getting in to remove snow.
MAUSD’s facilities director Joel FitzGerald took care of that.
“All these rinks come in panels,” he explained. “We took an eight-foot panel out, moved the doors down, and put the panel where the doors were.”
Now, using their own equipment, the facilities staff at neighboring Mount Abraham Union High School can do in 30 minutes what otherwise would have taken hours.
“That was the biggest thing,” FitzGerald said. “How fast can we get the snow off of there?”
The MAUSD will help with snow removal and ice maintenance free of charge, as a gift to the community.
Meanwhile, as a fun bonus, the Bristol Recreation Department acquired a tow-behind Bambini ice resurfacing machine. It, too, was a gift — from Sugarbush Resort.
“It’s not bad for outside ice,” FitzGerald said at the inaugural ELP event. “Outside ice is harder and it’s generally rougher. But it’s better to learn to play hockey on because it’s slower. A lot of really good hockey players started on outdoor ice.”
They haven’t painted the ice yet, though.
“Generally when you put in ice you put paint with it to make it white, but we didn’t do that here,” FitzGerald said. “We wanted to see how it goes and then eventually we’ll paint lines.”
Maintaining those lines can also be challenging, he said, especially when there’s a thaw and refreeze.
On Dec. 20, the night of the ELP event, temperatures were in the low teens, but less than a week later the weather had warmed up.
“Ice rink is closed,” the Bristol Recreation Department posted on its website on Dec. 26. “We’ll keep you posted when it is back open. Think Cold Temps.”
Despite the increasing vagaries of Vermont winters, the rink team has high hopes for its project.
Two days after the ELP exhibition a group had scheduled a pickup hockey get-together.
And more events are scheduled: a Community Skate Night for Jan. 10 and a Valentine’s Day date-skate night for Feb. 14.
“After that we’re just trying to do more events and also support some of the pickup games, like Puck and Stick or Pick-a-Puck,” McFarland said.
The Expanded Learning Program also plans to create its own ice hockey league, Chesley-Park said.
“Maybe once we get the ice really good, we can even invite the Middlebury College hockey team to come practice,” she mused.
Maybe one day, too: a roof.
“We do talk about that when we talk big picture,” Chesley-Park said, laughing. “But for now the main thing is we just have to get good ice.”
Just as important as good ice has been good will among various community stakeholders.
“At the last community event I went to we were talking about school consolidation. As they put the (financial) numbers out there the feeling was just so somber,” Chesley-Park said. “For all of us, when we got together to work on (the rink) it was like, ‘OK, how can we bring spirit back and how can we get everyone working together?’ Because we’re going to need to be unified. We’re going to need things like this where we can all pull together.”