Bemidji Figure Skating Club searches for ice to call home
Bemidji’s figure skaters don’t know where they will be lacing up their skates come fall.
BEMIDJI -- Bemidji’s figure skaters don’t know where they will be lacing up their skates come fall.
The legacy Bemidji Figure Skating Club -- which serves up to 100 young skaters annually -- has been met with uncertain times and is currently without a slab of ice to call their permanent home. Their former home, Neilson Reise Area, which is run by the city of Bemidji, has been closed since March and may not reopen.
In the time since then, skaters have caravanned from the Bemidji Community Area to the Sanford Center and out of the city to find spots to practice.
“It’s hard not having a home,” said BFSC Coach Sarah Haman. “I just find so much value in the program, it’s really hard to sit here and not be able to do anything to ensure its success or that it’s even going to exist. It’s kind of hinging on someone seeing the value that I see (in it).”
Last week on Monday, the Bemidji City Council reached an agreement with the Bemidji Community Arena to work with Neilson’s renters through the summer. But coaches are worried about a schedule crunch as the weather begins to chill again and youth hockey gets into full swing.
More than 50-year legacy
The BFSC program has been a Bemidji staple since 1967 -- it celebrated 50 years in 2017.
For 45 of them, BFSC Coach Jenni Rockensock has been involved. She was out on the ice last week, working with young mask-clad advanced skaters, as they practiced at the Sanford Center.
“We have always skated all the way through (the year),” she said of the pandemic-related closure last year. “Not skating was very weird. That was the first time in my whole entire life.”
The program was on pause from March until August 2020. Since then, they have bounced around a bit, practicing at the Sanford Center and the Bemidji Community Arena.
“Our traditions and our roots are here and we want to stay here (in Bemidji). That part is hard,” Coach Haman said. “What it comes down to is we need a home that is affordable enough to sustain a program with consistent ice time. I don’t think anybody would complain where we ended up as long as we had a home.”
Haman grew up skating in the program and said she got her start after watching an ice show. For Rockensock, it was the same. “I was hooked,” she said. “Hook, line and sinker.”
Rockensock has been a coach since 1990 and said the kids motivate her to continue. “I just like seeing them happy and out here doing something that I love and they love,” she said.
“I’ve talked many times about retiring, and the kids keep telling me, ‘Not until we graduate,’ with some of those (students) that’s going to be a while,” she added with a laugh.
The coaches consider the BFSC a lasting pillar of the community, but worry it won’t stay that way.
“This club has been a part of this town forever. I really feel this club has been a part of the community,” BFSC President Nina Rudnick said. “I’ve only been living here 18 years, and I know that the club’s been here 54 years. We can’t continue to exist past the summer if we don’t have a place to skate with consistent ice and rates that are affordable.”
Looking for a permanent home
BFSC has been housed at the Neilson Reise Arena -- which opened in 1964 -- area since its inception.
Even before last year’s closure, the future of the rink was in question, as the machinery in the facility is outdated. The equipment for the rink uses R-22 refrigerant, which isn't produced anymore because of environmental concerns. The arena has some R-22 for the future, but it's a finite supply.
The agreement approved on March 15 by the Bemidji City Council will allow renters to use one of the ice sheets at the Bemidji Community Arena from April 1 to Sept. 1.
As part of the agreement, the BCA will make all reasonable attempts to provide access and rent ice to traditional renters, including the Bemidji Figure Skating Club.
The city is also moving the manager of Neilson Reise to handle operations of public ice time at the BCA, and work with the BCAC to provide ice rental scheduling software.
Coaches, skaters and families have tossed around ideas for more permanent solutions. Some want the city to reopen Neilson Reise, at least temporarily, some want to work with the BCA to find a permanent home there, some hope additional ice will open at the Sanford Center, and others expressed a desire for a private buyer to take over Neilson Reise and fix it up.
To state it simply, they just want a consistent home on the ice.
Coaches and skaters clarified that they are grateful for the help of both the BCA and Sanford, but that things just get tricky with so many organizations in Bemidji centering around frozen homes.
Rudnick said her hope would be that the city reopens Neilson Reise at least temporarily until the club can come up with a more permanent solution.
“I just don’t see the BCA, even with the city’s help, once hockey starts in the fall, being able to give the Bemidji Figure Skating Club a place,” she said. “We need locker rooms, we need off-ice rooms, we need a place we can hang our jump harnesses, we need a rink that is our home club.”
Serving a larger community
Bemidji’s Figure Skating Program serves more than just Bemidji’s figure skaters. Its Learn to Skate program, which has been on hold this year due to COVID-19 and inconsistent ice schedules, has been the starting point for many of Bemidji’s hockey programs as well.
Bemidji also hosts one of the few figure skating clubs in northern Minnesota that have access to ice all year, which is a draw for participants from cities all over the northern half of the state, even up on the Canadian border.
“With the surrounding areas not having ice, we become a hub in the summer,” Rudnick explained. “There are skaters that come from Park Rapids, Baudette, Thief River, that don’t have ice.”
One parent, Jill Hasbargen, has been driving two hours south to Bemidji to skate. Ordinarily, Hasbargen’s daughter would skate in Canada in the winters, but due to the border closure, she hasn’t been able to join her usual program.
“If the club shuts down due to no available ice times of (affordable) ice, she would most likely be out of skating options until Canada opens back up, which is currently unknown,” Hasbargen said.
Talents on display
Figure skating isn’t something that can be joined on a whim. To reach qualification goals -- many skaters hope to earn gold medals in one or more of the U.S. Figure Skating test tracks -- steps need to be strategically planned years in advance.
Ordinarily, around his time of year, there’d be an ice show -- the last one in February 2020 was one of their final activities as a group before COVID-19 brought everything to a screeching halt.
“There was nothing really to be motivated by, we didn’t know if we could test, we didn’t know if we could compete,” Rockensock said. “It was a very odd year.”
The annual ice show serves as both a fundraiser and a way for students to put their skills on display. Graduating seniors are usually recognized during the event.
Rudnick said tentative plans are in place for a summer test session and a small summer show.
“We usually honor our high school seniors at our show every year where they get recognition for everything they’ve accomplished,” she said.
Right now the club has only one senior in the program: Rudnick’s daughter, Samantha, who has been skating for 12 years with hopes of continuing as a coach after graduation.
“I’d like to see her get honored, and our girls miss the show. It’s the highlight of the year for them,” she said. “Her being a senior, that really put her back a lot. She had goals that she wanted to meet before the end of her senior year while she could still test as a young adult,” Rudnick said of her daughter’s predicament. “We don’t know when our next test session will be, because it all depends on the ice that we secure.”
Testing and competing is something Bemidji skaters take seriously. Over the years, the program has produced prestigious Disney on Ice skaters and many coaches.
“It’s such a big part of all of these girls’ lives,” Haman said, gesturing to the ice. “If you want to get your gold or your triple gold, a lot of those girls make that decision in middle school, it’s a six to eight-year goal, they have laid out. It’s not a short commitment.”