Skating Fourth On New Ice

June 28, 2002
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KENTWOOD — While this red, white and blue week will include hot dogs, parades and fireworks for most, some will be skating — and despite the warm weather, they won’t be on thin ice.

The Soccer Spot at 3701 32nd St. SE is celebrating the Fourth in a truly revolutionary way by unveiling a new sheet of ice today, July 1 — one that won’t be soft, slushy or snowy regardless of the temperature.

That’s because the Soccer Spot is the first establishment in Michigan to feature Viking Ice, a new synthetic surface made by Greenwood Forest Products of Portland that can be used for figure, speed and recreational skating and hockey.

“Viking Ice skates like real ice,” said Dick Bertrand, an exclusive distributor of the product and past head hockey coach at Cornell and Ferris State universities.

“You can skate, stickhandle, pass, shoot and play on it, even make hockey stops,” he added. “That’s why it’s endorsed and recommended by athletes and instructors as a tool for training, development and conditioning for hockey players, as well as figure, speed and recreational skaters.”

The ice actually belongs to Bertrand, and not the Soccer Spot. He said there were a number of reasons he signed a one-year lease that has a couple of five-year options with the 2-year-old facility owned by DP Fox Sports and Entertainment and J.C. Huizenga.

Bertrand liked the traffic volume at the Soccer Spot, as about 80,000 people have made 300,000 trips to the building in the last four months. He also liked the fact that enough space was readily available for his product and that most European hockey players also play soccer to stay in shape and sharpen their skills — something he hopes becomes a trend here.

Bertrand laid the ice, put up the dashers and installed the nets on June 12 and has had everything tested out by the toughest of ice critics, namely kids 9 to 12.

“They’ve been having a blast on it. It’s real interesting because when you first get on the synthetic ice surface there is a slight drag. On refrigerated you’ve got a 100-percent glide, while on the synthetic, you’ve got 95 to 97 until you get used to it,” he said.

“There isn’t damage to the blades. After skating on it four times, my skates were still sharp.”

The rink opens to the public today and the ice, made of polyethylene and thermoplastic panels with a treated plywood core, allows Bertrand to rent time at a definite cost advantage over others. Because of its composition, his ice doesn’t need a special floor, refrigeration equipment, a dehumidification system or a Zamboni.

“Anyone renting ice time right now would probably pay anywhere from $220 to $260 an hour, and at some it’s even higher than that,” said Bertrand, who also directs the amateur hockey program for East Grand Rapids, which spends $130,000 a season on ice rental.

“My plan, right now, is to rent that ice time for $85 an hour.”

The sheet is smaller, 40 by 75, than the standard refrigerated rink, but is still big enough for public skating and team practices. Up to 14 players between the ages of 5 to 13, and eight between the ages of 14 to adult can be on the ice at one time with two coaches. Bertrand also has plans to start a three-on-three hockey league this fall and a learn-to-skate program.

“Synthetic is not intended to replace refrigerated. It’s a coaching, training and fun surface. It’s perfect for three-on-three and moms with their young kids,” he said.

Bertrand estimated that the cost for a full-size, 85 by 200, synthetic rink would run about $300,000, while a refrigerated one costs from $3 million to $5 million. And Bertrand felt it wouldn’t be too long before someone opens a synthetic icehouse and goes head-to-head with existing rinks in the local ice-rental business.

Time will tell whether the revolutionary sheet will catch on and gain its own independence. But with the cost of ice time on the rise, and with youth teams practicing in the early morning and adults playing late at night because the rinks are booked, Bertrand’s synthetic ice seems to stand a real chance.

The odds for his success, however, will improve greatly if some youth hockey teams give his surface a test skate.

“A coach can work on breakouts, on offensive-zone play, on defensive-zone play, on a power play and a penalty kill. The kids can work on their shooting and all of that,” he said. “There are many things they can do and, again, not pay a whole lot of money.”           

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