´╗┐Ice Skating in Miami

February 1, 2018
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Hurricane Irma approached the southern tip of Florida last September, and evacuations were ordered throughout the ocean-facing cities.

Many residents decided instead to wait out the storm. That was certainly true in Miami, which suffered high winds and a great deal of damage but avoided some of the most dangerous conditions from the storm.

So, instead of running north, many Miami residents took refuge in the area’s most secure buildings, including the Kendall Ice Arena.

Located in the southwest suburbs of downtown Miami, the Kendall Ice Arena is the only ice rink available to residents of the nation’s southern paradise city. But, for about a week during late September, the rink became a home away from home for residents who feared the approaching storm.

“We decided, rather than bug out north, we would hunker down at the arena,” said arena director Kent Johnson. “So we had over 20 cars on the ice. They came through the Zamboni bay. We had various families and employees in the upstairs gym where everybody camped out. We were there for a full week and we had quite a good time. The building was completely safe. We sat in the lobby with lawn chairs and watched the horrific winds outside.”

The arena was without electrical power for two days, and the cars were removed from the ice when the storm died down, even though the ice never melted. The families ate food from the arena’s concession stand, and even barbequed one day.

Kendall Ice Arena serves as more than just protection from the storms for the area’s residents. It is the lone outlet for winter ice sports enthusiasts, and includes a constant stream of ice skating fans and future stars from south of the border. Serving the area’s strong Latino community, the Kendall Ice Arena makes the best out of the hard sell of ice skating in paradise.

“It’s a huge novelty down here,” said Johnson, who moved his family from Houston to Miami in 2000 after operating a rink in southern Texas. “The Latino community is very in tune with soccer and baseball, but people find us. We are an oasis for winter sports.”

The arena hosts two rinks, an Olympic rink for mostly public skating and a second for figure skating and hockey. The arena also houses 13 (yes, 13!) rooms for birthday parties, which is the rink’s secondary service that sometimes outweighs the first.

“That is how people find us; they come to birthday parties,” Johnson said. “That brings an enormous number of kids to the rink who would never know we are there otherwise.”

The rink also benefits from the existence of the National Hockey League’s southern-most team, the Florida Panthers. As Miami’s only rink, Kendall Ice Arena takes advantage of the Panthers’ desire to attract city dwellers to games, and the ongoing relationship helps build the arena’s growing hockey interests.

In 2017, Kendall Ice Arena hosted the state’s U-10 champion, the Miami Toros. The program is growing, and Johnson hopes it grows faster than it already is.

“That’s an area we want to get better at,’’ Jonson said. “The sticker price for hockey is what slows everything down. They walk in to play hockey and find it is going to cost $400 to get started and that is a tough thing to chew.”

Like all kids, Latinos want to have someone to look up to in sports, and there are a few examples of Latino skaters with Miami and Kendall ties for them to emulate. Eddy Alvarez, the former Olympic short track speed skater (and current professional baseball player), is the son of Cuban immigrants and skated at Kendall. So did Randy Hernandez, who is a forward with the U.S. national hockey team developmental program aiming for an NHL role someday.

Then there is Max Fernandez, who started his skating career in the Basic Skills Series at Kendall Ice Arena and went on to become the U.S. Junior Pairs champion. So it can happen for Latinos just as it can for skaters from other ethnicities.

Johnson is himself a former skater and coach who trained under Frank Carroll and eventually developed the USFS Basic Skills Series. He is also the father of Karina Johnson, who grew up at Kendall with her parents and competed for Denmark, her mother’s native country, in the world championships and the European championships.

Ice skating is a bit of a tough sell in Florida, although it helps that so many residents are the part-time snowbirds who come down for the winter from up north. Of course, some snowbirds make south Florida their home year ‘round, and the Kendall Ice Arena is a natural draw for their skating interests.

Something else has occurred at Kendall in recent years that has made the arena even more of a Miami hot spot.

“We are a sort of center for Latin American countries,” Johnson said. “They are getting more ice skaters down there, and more ice rinks in South America and Mexico. They are building these odd little ice rinks in shopping centers, and the ice has poles in the middle of the ice from the building construction.

“It’s a struggle for those skaters,” he said. “We now have a steady stream of those kids who come up here to train for a short period of time. They come from Buenos Aires, Chile, Ecuador and Mexico. They are very charming when they come up. They are so eager to learn.”