Wichita Ice Center enjoying crush of customers

It's been something of a madhouse at the Wichita Ice Center the past week.

With students out of school for the holiday break, the ice skating facility has been packed with kids and their families during the public skating sessions.

In fact, between October and March, Wichita Ice Center has a steady crush of people taking advantage of its various programs.

"Some days, we start out at 6 o'clock in the morning and don't close up until midnight," said Louis Lombardo III, general manager.

As it enters its 15th year of operation, the Ice Center continues to offer a broad range of programs designed not only to entertain people who like to ice-skate, but also to introduce newbies to the activity and provide competitive outlets for those serious about the sport.

You don't even have to skate to have fun on the ice. The center offers a broomball program that allows teams to play a form of hockey using balls and a stick called a broom. Players wear sneakers, not ice skates.

"We have a lot of local groups that do the broomball instead of skating," Lombardo said.

Instruction is a big part of the Ice Center's mission, he said. It offers learn-to-skate classes for ages 3 and up, progressive programs that generally are taught in seven-week sessions. Hockey classes for kids and adults also are popular.

"Our adult hockey league has about 20 teams, with five different levels of play," he said. "You have the elite players but you also have those who are recreational players."

The Ice Center also works closely with the Wichita Figure Skating Club, which consists of about 45 competitive skaters who participate in regional and national events. In the past two years, the center has been helping the Wichita Speed Skating Club attract members, Lombardo said.

The Wichita Youth Hockey Association also is based at the center and works with recreational teams that play in-house and those that travel, too.

Other features offered at the center include birthday party events, as well as group events for churches and other organizations.

Public skating sessions include a Rock and Skate night from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. every Friday, when the rink lights are turned off and disco lights illuminate the rink. The event is popular with teenagers, Lombardo said.

Saturday night public sessions also are designed to attract teenagers and young adults, he said. During Sunday afternoon sessions, costumed characters help keep kids entertained on the ice.

A concession stand offers drinks and food, and a pro shop sells skates, figure skating attire and hockey equipment.

The Ice Center actually has two rinks. The main rink has seating for about 750 and is Olympic sized — 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. A smaller rink is NHL-sized, 200 feet long and 85 feet wide. Each year, one of the rinks is taken out of commission for about two months in the summer for refurbishing.

"Our busy time is October through March, and both sheets of ice are running pretty solid," said Lombardo, a figure skater himself as well as a hockey coach. "We keep it at about 50 degrees inside, so why go skate on a pond or lake when it's much colder out there?"

The Ice Center is managed by a national company called Rink Management Services. It views Wichita as a strong market, Lombardo said.

"It is actually growing," he said. "We've seen our learn-to-skate numbers grow substantially. We try to run a fun program. All of our instructors are fun. They're out there for the sport. It's great entertainment."