During these cursed months of gray and wind, a drive down St. Clair Avenue in St. Paul produces an only-in-Minnesota-scene. Two hockey rinks swarm with players battling in friendly pickup games as chortling toddlers new to ice fight for balance pushing plastic chairs across the frozen surface.
When 200 skaters have chewed up enough of the ice, everyone clears. Out motors the city's only outdoor Zamboni.
Today Groveland Park is an ice skating mecca. This hasn't always been the case.
Almost 20 years ago, the outdoor skating facility between Macalester College and the University of St. Thomas was dirt and rocks. Groveland Park had witnessed a precipitous decline in usage, mainly because the ice had fallen into disrepair.
Rec Center Director Eric Stokes, a former University of Alaska-Fairbanks hockey player, and neighborhood residents Scott and Lisa Lewlellyn decided it was time for a comeback.
Their strategy was simple. If they could make good ice, skaters would return.
In the beginning, volunteers from the Groveland Booster Club did the work by hand. They shoveled, scraped, and flooded the rink with a hose.
"We used to have to run the hose for 40 hours just to get enough water down to make ice," says Chris Engelmann. "Then we'd run over it with cars to pack it down."
But it worked. The ice improved with each application.
In 2000, a storage garage was constructed, which would house a sweeper provided by the city. Home Depot donated the concrete block.
Getting the sweeper proved to be a huge score. It eliminated the need for shoveling. Ice quality improved in a big way.
Three years later, as skaters started to return, they decided to raise the bar by buying a used Zamboni.
Brian Stang, a local hockey parent, found one in Des Moines. The Groveland Booster Club purchased the 1978 Zamboni for $3,000 in 2004. It was soon loaded onto a semi trailer and bound for St. Paul.
Thousands more dollars were dumped in to make the machine operational, largely underwritten by Engelmann's credit card.
"I -- we, really, as there were a lot of people involved doing all this stuff, -- did it out of love, for people, for community," says Engelmann.
But city officials threw a wrench into their plans. Before the resurfacer could be used, they required a bigger storage garage to house it. The rinks also needed a certain kind of boards in order to use the Zamboni outdoors.
Englemann and other volunteers stepped in. They donated cash, materials, and time, and secured materials from local businesses. Joe Buzicky took the lead on the garage. Sweat equity from the likes of Brian Stang and Ray Kotta built the boards.
"That allowed us to rent out ice to hockey associations for $60 an hour that had been paying $120," says Engelmann.
Today, there's no shortage of ice time buyers at Groveland. Ice rentals are now its largest source of revenue.
"I like to set up something that's sustainable, that's going to last forever," says Engelmann. "That's what this is built for."
The five children belonging to St. Paul's Stephen Kelly grew up skating on the city's outdoor rinks. Groveland Park might be their collective fave.
"What's been done there," says Kelly, "is truly amazing. They took a place that was in rough shape and turned it into a skating mecca for the whole community. It makes you feel good about living here."
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