Thick Ice

W e stepped onto the ice with some trepidation, my daughter and I. We hadn’t skated much since she was a little kid. Looking more like she was nine than 19, she held her pink-gloved hands out in front of her and wobbled forward, anticipating a fall. We didn’t hug the wall, but we took it slow. After a few laps around the Ralph Walker Ice Rink, we had our skating legs back.

In fact, the whole city is about to reclaim its skating mojo. New Haven’s city-owned rink has seen some upgrades since the public last hit the ice pre-pandemic. Locker rooms for visiting hockey teams now take up the original common room and skate rental area, and the Albertus Magnus men’s hockey team, which calls Ralph Walker home, has a new locker room of its own. For now, a covered, rubberized deck is the spot for the rest of us to lace up. But a brand new common room with a 360-degree fireplace, a large food concession stand, a party room and a new skate rental station are on the way at the far end of the rink, where the main entrance and ticket booth will be located.

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The AC Gilbert Train Display at the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop

In the meantime, the best news is ice time, and lots of it. With multiple open skating sessions on both weekdays and weekends, attendance has been “incredible,” says Lisa Fedick, co-owner of the rink’s new management company, SKATE New Haven. The second weekend in December, she says, was “absolutely packed.” Over the winter break, SKATE will offer two to three open skate sessions daily. A holiday recreational day camp will run December 27 to 30 from 8 to 10 a.m., featuring both instruction and games ($119 for four days; $99 for three; $39 for a single day pass). After the new year, Learn to Skate classes will begin, and special events will pop up year-round, in the vein of a Skate with Santa and an Ugly Sweater Contest last weekend. SKATE also hopes to offer theater on ice, synchronized skating and hockey lessons for all ages.

My daughter and I shared the ice with about a dozen other skaters on our Tuesday night visit, including a boy whose method was to skate-run then fall-slide, a man gliding easily with hands in his pockets (the sign of a former hockey player) and an older woman with a confident stride. Stacked milk crates that used to serve as stabilizers for new skaters have been replaced by cute blue plastic seals and red-nosed reindeer that kids can either push or ride on. The kids we saw preferred the former.

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As for us, we caught our rhythm and settled in. Skating is a bit like riding a bike. Once you know how to do it, you can find your way back. I noted the familiar sensations: nicked ice tickling the blades, fresh air chilling my nose and fingertips. The hollow sound of skates on ice rumbled in the brief silences between songs. I grew up skating outdoors, and rink ice always feels softer to me—waxy, almost—than the concrete-hard ice of a lake or pond. The fact that Ralph Walker has a roof but no walls makes it feel more like childhood to me; you can enjoy that outdoor cold and, if you get going fast enough, a real breeze on your face. You might think it would be boring to skate in circles, as a rink requires, but after awhile, the repetition can offer a meditative groove along with the satisfaction of smooth speed, which feels like flying when compared to the slow daily pace of a walk.

The square center of the rink, marked off by neon yellow cones for figure skaters, was still mirror smooth with just a few swoops of shaved ice when we were called off the ice at 7:45. Within minutes, the Zamboni was slicking the whole surface clean. When it was done, a strange quiet fell, and all we could hear was the gentle scrape of the driver’s shovel clearing the Zamboni’s parking space and the hum of traffic on the highway overpass. A pickup hockey game scheduled for 8 never materialized, and it was time to close up shop.

The rink’s schedule will keep shifting weekly, Fedick says, until SKATE New Haven figures out what people want and when. “We’re not going to just lease it out for… hockey teams. We want to make it a focal point of the community.” That may take some fine-tuning. “Whatever we do this year,” she says, “is just going to be building blocks for next year and beyond.”

SKATE New Haven
Ralph Walker Ice Rink – 1080 State St, New Haven (map)
[email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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