February 3, 2013

Once more into the rink: Waterville area sees resurgence of ice skating

New outdoor ice rinks in Winslow, Waterville invoke memory of ice skating heydays in 1960s, '70s

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- Time is cyclical, some say.

click image to enlarge

Jena Nawfel, left, and her friend Anne-Marie Provencal at Nawfel's home rink in Waterville.

Staff photo by Ben McCanna

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Kids play hockey at the ice rink at the Alfond Youth Center on North Street in Waterville in January.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Additional Photos Below

MAINE POND HOCKEY CLASSIC

A pond hockey tournament will be held from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 9-10 on the northeast corner of China Lake off Lakeview Drive, China, weather permitting. Fifteen teams from across Maine, Boston and Nova Scotia will play on three rinks that will be set up on the lake ice. For more information, call the Waterville Boys and Girls Club at 873-0684.

Decades ago, outdoor ice skating rinks were commonplace in central Maine. In the 1960s and '70s, scads of school-aged boys roamed from neighborhood to neighborhood, playing pickup hockey games on makeshift backyard rinks and public facilities. Thanks to the wide availability of free ice and free time, an entire generation of skaters earned high school championships, college stardom and -- in one case -- Olympic status.

In the 1990s, however, the rinks dried up and interest faded in central Maine. Now the organizers behind two recently opened outdoor rinks hope their facilities will recapture old glory.

Well-known hockey town

At the bottom of a steep bank just east of Summer Street lie the ruins of a cherished landmark: South End Arena. Today the 1.7-acre open lot is a tangle of winter-browned weeds, but for 44 years it was a hub for ice skaters in wintertime.

From 1946 to 1990, two generations of the Gagne family maintained the arena. Although the land was private, the arena was public -- open to anyone with the means to get there. Arthur Gagne, the family patriarch, ran the arena for the bulk of its existence, until 1983, when he turned it over to his son.

The elder Gagne -- a longtime captain for the Waterville Police Department -- hosted boxing matches and political rallies at the site, but it was best known for ice skating.

The arena was nearly a full-sized rink, encircled by hockey boards with painted advertisements from local businesses. It was funded in small part by the city of Waterville, but it was Gagne who kept it going, according to Morning Sentinel archives. The arena was such a community asset that Gagne won several awards for his efforts, including the Book of Golden Deeds award and Citizen of the Year from local clubs.

The site also featured a warming hut with pinball machines, pool tables and a jukebox. Gagne reportedly liked children, but he could be stern with them. He had a policy of making them put a quarter into the jukebox each time he caught one swearing.

"Kids are nice," he said during a Morning Sentinel interview in 1982. "I don't care what anyone says."

Gagne died in 1990; the arena faltered that same year.

Twenty-three years later, the organizers behind two outdoor rinks are hoping to evoke the spirit of Gagne's arena and rekindle a culture of skating.

Earlier this season in Winslow, town Councilor Ray Caron was one of a few volunteers who helped build a small rink on Danielson Street between Winslow's junior high and high schools. The $1,000 project, which was funded through donations, was inspired largely by the South End Arena.

"I can remember when I was young, living in South End," said Caron, 57. "We would skate for hours in the cold and have such a great time, and I thought that maybe we could provide that feeling to the youth of today."

Winslow's new rink also drew inspiration from the outdoor rink at the Alfond Youth Center on North Street in Waterville, which is in its second season of operation. This year, the center added a warming hut, a skate sharpener and outdoor lighting, which provides night skating until 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Ken Walsh, chief operating officer at the center, said the goal is to introduce more people to skating and give hockey players more practice time.

"This was always well-known as a hockey town," he said. "We're hoping places like this will help put us back on the map."

For five consecutive years, from 1969 to 1973, the hockey team at Waterville High School won the state championship. The school also earned three consecutive championships beginning in 1979, according to state records.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Mike Nawfel built a ice rink in his backyard in Waterville for his daughters and their friends.

Staff photo by Ben McCanna

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Arthur Gagne, at right, in the South End Arena in an undated file photo. The other man is unidentified.

Staff file photo

 


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