Winter sports in this region have always required an extra push.
Take Kay Gentges, for instance. She awakens at 4 a.m., drives from her Louisburg home and arrives at the KC Ice Center at 19900 Johnson Drive by 5:30 a.m. to open the doors of Johnson County’s premier ice sports complex.
A few minutes later, several bleary-eyed skaters trickle in, parents in tow. On this recent (and warm) morning, the count is low.
“The colder it gets, the more people we have,” said Gentges, the center’s skate school director.
Among the day’s early risers is Erin Dimon, 17, who gets in a figure-skating workout before her classes begin at Blue Valley Northwest High School.
Dimon practices four days a week at KC Ice Center, and on three of those days the alarm sounds around 4:45 a.m.
“It’s what you have to do,” Erin said.
Usually, her father, Jeff, drives her the 20 miles from the family’s home in south Overland Park. Erin uses the passenger-seat time to get ready for the workout, and school.
Skaters, skiers, curlers, snowboarders, ice-hockey players and other winter-sports participants can relate. Ice and snow are available for competition and recreation in Kansas City, but you might have to wake up a little earlier, go to bed a little later and drive a little farther to make the lifestyle work.
Sure, cold and snow come our way, but not in the frequency or duration needed to make this region a natural winter sports wonderland.
“It’s not something most people here grow up with,” said Kathleen Ogren, president of the Kansas City Figure Skating Club. “In the North, it’s so much a part of their lives, woven into the fabric of their world.”
But just try to take it away.
Johnson County’s winter sports administrators and parents were in for the fight of their lives nearly two years ago.
In January 2011, at the height of the winter sports season, the equipment that helps make ice malfunctioned at Pepsi Ice Midwest. When owners of the busy facility at 135th Street and Quivira Road deemed the cost of repairing the equipment to be too great, hockey teams, skaters and others were left to scramble for alternate venues.
The reverberations were felt throughout the metro area as Joco-based skaters fanned out to places like the Line Creek Community Center and the Carriage Club in Kansas City, the Independence Events Center, and even farther-flung ice facilities in St. Joseph and Topeka.
“We were at the Carriage Club for a late-night practice and had a home tournament in Topeka,” said Janine de la Pena of Overland Park, the team manager for her son Zane’s squirt-select Kansas City Stars hockey team. “We were scattered.”
In the weeks that followed, more than 1,800 ice lovers signed an online petition directed to the city of Overland Park and the Johnson County Commission to keep the Pepsi Ice facility open for skating. “Without this facility,” the petition said, “youth programs will disintegrate for the lack of ice time… Many will simply give up hockey and ice skating altogether.”
Some did. Gentges and Mary Helmick, the coordinator and administrator of the Stars’ youth program, said they lost participants in the uncertainty that ensued.
But the ice never returned to Pepsi Ice Midwest. Today, the building houses The Fieldhouse of Kansas City, which focuses on basketball and volleyball tournaments and training.
Forced to look elsewhere for ice time, skaters in Johnson County soon found a new home base. Or rather, they moved into an older one and spruced it up.
KC Ice Center had already been a part of the lineup of sports venues along Johnson Drive: a next-door neighbor to Shawnee Mission Beach Volleyball, across the street from the ball fields at Mid-America Sports Complex, and down the road from Okun Fieldhouse.
In the days and months that followed the closure of Pepsi Ice Midwest, two needs came together. Ice Sports — the former name for KC Ice Center — was aging and in need of an upgrade, and the Stars, the Kansas City Figure Skating Club and anybody who simply wanted to lace up skates for a leisurely glide sought more ice in Johnson County.
By March 2011, a management group that was connected to the Stars took over the facility. But a problem remained: KC Ice Center had only one sheet of ice. Pepsi Ice had offered two, plus a quarter-sheet for goalie and skating practice.
The ice shortage was alleviated in November, when KC Ice Center opened a second rink — a cool, new outdoor facility with an underground chilling system that will keep the ice frozen even if temperatures rise to 60 degrees. In warmer months, the area will be used for roller hockey.
In any season, creature comforts abound. Outside the rink is a fashionable retreat, with a firepit and tables offering comfortable seating tucked into one corner. Bar stools and a continuous counter with room to set a drink wrap around the east end of the rink.
KC Ice Center will get to show off its new digs this week when it plays host to the Plaza Lights Invitational, a three-day youth tournament that starts on Friday. Eighteen of the 21 participating teams will hail from outside of Kansas City.
“We’ve had tournaments, but not one this big,” Helmick said.
For a metropolitan area without an NHL, high-level minor league or college hockey team — the area’s lone professional club, the Missouri Mavericks, plays at the Independence Events Center and leads the Central Hockey League in attendance — the Stars’ program has swelled its ranks.
Some 380 players from age 8 to 18 compete, and Helmick estimates that 95 percent of those skaters are from Johnson County. The Stars’ director of hockey since 2009 is Tom Tilley, a former St. Louis Blues defenseman, and the organization has about 70 volunteer coaches for its 30 teams.
“We do an exceptional job coaching and training, and our teams are very competitive on a national level,” Helmick said.
Add to that the organizations that are based at other rinks and take part in the Kansas City Amateur Hockey League — the KC Fighting Saints at Line Creek, Jr. Mavs at the Independence Events Center, KC Carriage Club, Topeka Jr. Roadrunners and St. Joseph Griffons — and Helmick figures that more than 1,000 youth are playing hockey in the region.
The hockey’s not just for kids, either. Adult leagues are in session regularly at the area’s primary rinks.
Westport Flea Market owner Joe Zwillenberg took up the sport three years ago.
“Literally, I had never been on skates,” said Zwillenberg after watching his kids compete at KC Ice Center.
Now, he throws his 41-year-old body into the mix during league play on Sunday nights at Carriage Club.
Teams and clubs drive much of the region’s winter sports scene. Some have been around for decades, while others are just getting off the ground.
All give Kansas City its winter sports personality. And ice hockey wasn’t the only sport in which numbers dipped when Pepsi Ice shuttered its doors in 2011.
Ogren, the Kansas City Figure Skating Club president, saw her organization’s numbers decrease with the abrupt news. Many of the group’s skaters lived in the south part of Johnson County, and the trip from the old facility to the new one is about 15 miles.
“For a lot of people, there was a convenience factor,” Ogren said. “But we have seen our numbers pick up again.”
Today, the Kansas City Figure Skating Club counts about 130 members. Founded in 1937, it is probably the longest-running winter-sports club in the Kansas City area.
The club has had several homes, including the old Fox Hill Ice Arena in Overland Park, the Crown Center Ice Terrace, the AMF Ice Chateau (that was originally known as King Louie), and Ice Sports.
The group holds one of the Midwest’s premier competitions, Skate Kansas City, in April and also serves as headquarters for perhaps the region’s most decorated winter-sports athlete, figure skater John Coughlin. Coughlin has won the U.S. championship in pairs each of the last two years with different partners, although surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip will keep him from defending his title next month in Omaha, Neb.
Classes in synchronized skating, a team sport in which eight to 20 athletes perform a program together, are also offered at KC Ice Center. The Kansas City Illusion, the region’s largest competitive synchronized skating team, is based at Line Creek.
But it’s not always about the competition.
“Sometimes, people enjoy skating but don’t want to compete,” Ogren said. “Some skate for fun and exercise. Others do traditional figure skating, while some participate in ice dancing.”
Brian Simpson used to run the Iowa Speed Skating Association. When he moved to Olathe last year, he wanted to start a similar group here.
Thus, the KC Speed Skating Club was born.
Its numbers are small. And some basic skating skills are required before competitors can turn on the jets.
But those who participate seem to have a lot of fun.
“Mom?” asked 7-year-old Libby Williams after a recent Saturday practice that left her breathless. “Can we come back next week?”
Enthusiasm like that makes Simpson smile.
“It’s all about keeping pressure on the ice,” he said. “In order to go fast and maximize power, you keep a lot of pressure on the ice.”
Simpson, a certified coach through the U.S. Speed Skating Association, said he’s worked with hockey players, helping them increase their power.
Figure skaters, too.
“Libby went to a few speed-skating lessons, and that really improved her strength and speed in figure skating,” said her mom, Lee Ann Williams.
The region’s largest winter sports club remains lodged at West 87th Street, just down from the Johnson County Library.
The Kansas City Ski Club, with more than 600 members, is always on the move, with trips planned on several winter weekends to slopes in Colorado and Sun Valley, Idaho.
One of the club’s biggest events — the Kansas City Ski Club Race — will take place closer to home, in Weston, on Jan. 6.
The organization has a rich history. It started in 1955 and, according to club president Jerry Lopez, a club member for 32 years, membership once reached into the thousands.
The sour economy and younger generation’s appetite for more extreme winter sports took a toll on those numbers, but the club now makes room for snowboarders and is making a comeback.
“That’s what most of our younger members prefer,” Lopez said.
The ski season in these parts, like that for other winter sports in the region, doesn’t start as early or last as long as it might in colder climes.
But that hasn’t dulled the local skiers’ competitive edge. The Kansas City Ski Club is the two-time defending champion of the Flatlands Ski Association’s team award, a competition that encompasses nine clubs in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Chris Nazar moved to Kansas City from Ontario about five years ago, and only then did he take up curling, the sport that is most popular internationally in Canada.
“I always wanted to get into it, but this is where it happened,” said Nazar, president of the Kansas City Curling Club.
You’ve seen curling in the Olympics: that odd sport that seems to combine skill, strategy and janitorial work on the ice. Polished granite stones called rocks are slid down a lane of ice toward a marked target (“the house”). At this point, it’s shuffleboard on ice.
But a pair of sweepers using brooms can influence the course of the rock. The basic idea is to get your rocks close to the center of the target while knocking out your opponent’s in the process.
The Kansas City Curling Club was founded in 1987 but went dormant for about seven years before reforming in 2003. A spike in participation paralleled a nationwide increase in the sport’s popularity around the 2010 Winter Olympics, when membership peaked at about 80.
But the club was curling at Pepsi Ice at the time, and like other groups was soon displaced. Today, the Kansas City curlers have a comfortable home at Line Creek, where they slide their rocks on five sheets, or curling lanes; league play finished in early December, and the club now sponsors open curling on the weekends.
Like other winter-sports enthusiasts, its members welcome additional ice in the Kansas City area.
“We don’t have a big budget — no paid staff,” said Bill McBride, a club member since its inception and its membership and the group’s communications chairman. “We try to keep it cost-effective. All of us do it for fun.”
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, send email to email@example.com.