There’s nothing quite like the sulfurous smell of a skating rink. It could be the off-gassing of the black floor that is set around the outside of the ice, Zamboni exhaust hanging in the air, perhaps the chemicals that get mixed with the frozen water, or the layered sweat of hockey and figure skaters. It’s a smell that goes home with you, heavy in your hair and clothes. It’s a smell that lingers on your hands after you’ve removed your gloves.
I drove to Vancouver the weekend before last. When I’m up there, I like to go skating. It’s not that we don’t have skating rinks around Seattle; we do, and I could easily go there. I don’t know those rinks, though. They don’t beckon me.
I grew up in the skating rinks around Vancouver, practicing figure eights, axels and waltz patterns. My first club was in Burnaby, where we lived. I went back and forth between the two city-owned rinks, four and five days a week, until they took the ice out for the summer. Then my mother drove me to the posh Hollyburn Country Club in West Vancouver or the Karen Magnussen arena—named for the Olympic medalist— in North Van. They were both long drives from our house, but they had summer school for skaters there. In September, I was the palest kid in school.
When my potential talent outgrew the capacity of my coach (at least in my mother’s eyes), I changed clubs, as skaters often do. Now Mum was driving me to Delta and its two rinks, and I picked up extra lessons at the Moody and Queen’s Park arenas in New Westminster. When practicing with my first ice dance partner, we skated in Coquitlam.
Competitions and tests were held all over the place, giving me familiarity with the frozen surfaces of the Chilliwack, Port Coquitlam, Surrey and Richmond arenas. When the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) went on strike and the rinks went dark, it was unthinkable to take a skating break, and so we drove to the University of B.C. campus. They had a rink there, too.
Another coach and club change occurred, and then I was skating in Vancouver proper. The Sunset Arena was right in the heart of Little India, and if I left the car windows down as we drove in, the waft of curry spices traveled up my nose (back then, I liked it only a little bit better than the rink smell). My mother found extra ice time for me at the Kerrisdale rink, but upon landing a jump, when I accidentally gashed open another girl’s shin with my skate blade, we didn’t go back. I never knew how her recovery went, because just down the road was the Arbutus Club.
The buildings were all different, but the smell was always the same.
My rink rat days were decades ago, but come back vividly every time I open my skate bag. I’ve never replaced the tan vinyl Adidas duffel that I first started using around 1978, even though it’s been to hell and back (all those rinks plus many more). It still has the same carpet remnant lining the bottom that my mother cut out to protect my skate blades from damage. The rag that I use to wipe my blades dry after a turn about the ice is from a red flannel nightgown: a growth spurt between third and fourth grades meant that it was relegated to the rag bin, and then my skate bag. It hasn’t been washed in 35 years. I’ve got smartly-patterned fleece blade covers now, but the three-ply Phentex-yarn covers that my mum knit are still floating around in the bag, too. And the skates? They are the same ones that took me to Nationals in 1984, the toe-pick dents in the soles left by my old partner. The skates have an odor all their own.
I did manage to go skating that last weekend, out in Richmond. It had been a while, and the legs were creaky. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to reinforce the smells in my skate bag, though, so I could bring them home with me.
Yep, I could go skating at the rinks in Seattle, but I’m afraid that they would smell different.