A rink of dreams: Smokin’ Eagle owners get frozen Oatka Creek ready for hockey
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A rink of dreams: Smokin’ Eagle owners get frozen Oatka Creek ready for hockey

Jan 9, 2018

LE ROY — Descending a staircase misshapen by lumps of frozen snow, a father turned back to his boys and as they looked down at a slice of Hockey Heaven.

“Old-time hockey is true here,” he told them as all three approached a pond hockey rink constructed on Oatka Creek in the village, with the boys carrying their sticks in hand.

After an Artic winter, waterways of all kinds have gained thick coatings of ice. The dangerous chills of the past week only added to the frozen buildup, and pushed Smokin’ Eagle restaurant owners Jon Marcello and Jason Beaumont to pursue a special project.

“It’s basically been a situation where we’ve been dreaming about playing pond hockey out here for a while now,” Marcello said as a pickup game took shape Sunday.

“There hasn’t been a winter since we’ve been here — five, six years — where we could do this,” he added. “This year, it froze up nice for us.”

They made sure there were no issues with making a rink on the ice — it’s free to use, they learned — and felt they could make a go of it.

“It came down to me and my snowblower,” Marcello said.

The hockey rink took shape after a patch once used for skating in previous years was cleared. Attention quickly spread within the community.

Laura Belluscio Williams, who grew up in Le Roy, posted a video Wednesday on the “LeRoy, N.Y. Then and Now” Facebook site showing a couple of people skating on the creek. Williams heard a rumor about the week hockey game and was excited that they were real.

“Obviously, a lot of us who have grown up in Le Roy have very fond memories of skating on the creek during the cold winter months,” she told The Daily News Thursday.

Williams said she was out of town Sunday, shared some more recollections that night. She said growing up in the colder winters of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s meant spending evenings skating on the creek.

“I was in elementary school when I remember spending the most time skating. It was kind of like the old school roller-skating parties ... except outside,” she said. “My father was a speed skater when he was younger so he was always excited to take my brother and I uptown to the rink.

“I remember the evenings the most when the ice was illuminated and crowded with friends from all over town. We always knew that it was safe to skate because the village would hang a green flag from a pole that was on the creek bank,” she said. “Sad were the days when the red flag went up and the ice became too thin for skating.”

To Williams, the excitement surrounding this week’s return of the creek skating rink is not shocking.

“There seems to be discussion every year about ‘remember when we would skate on the creek...’ she said. “With the reopening of the Creekside Inn and Tavern, it only seems natural to carry that excitement to the ice. It’s a cold winter, we might as well find some way to enjoy it!”

With ice time at local rinks hard to come by, parents said they were happy to see open ice, even if it was an old-school set-up with just two nets and a fairly-even clearing of snow.

“A lot of kids from Le Roy go to Batavia to play for the Ramparts, there’s a couple Notre Dame (hockey players) too, so we’ve got a hockey thing going,” Jamie Calabrese said. “This just fun, this is like back-in-the-day.”

Calabrese and Marcello’s son Jacob was the first to get on the ice, testing it out briefly Thursday. The weather was better than they thought, but precautions were taken.

“We bundled them up pretty good,” Calabrese said. “I don’t think they could move.”

Marcello said that he bored into the ice on Saturday night as part of a test to see if they could use the Oatka Creek’s water to lay a more even surface for skating. That first try at rink improvements didn’t take, but he found that the ice is already a 12 inches thick.

Being out until 2 a.m. on the open creek was a cold, but rewarding experience for Marcello, who grew up skating and playing hockey in the mostly-drained Erie Canal in Brockport.

“It’s an asset that not a lot of kids have these days, when I grew up, we played football and cleared off the ice on the canal and played hockey,” he said. “I think bringing some of that back is good for them.”

As the first players arrived on Sunday morning, Steve Miller and Nick Pascucci chipped away at a layer of snow on top of the ice with. The surface was comfortable to stand on, but it was still cold enough to turn cans of Genesee Bock into slushies and add strands of ice to their beards.

“Nobody had to convince us,” to help, Miller said after a sliding push.

“It sounded like a good idea to play hockey on the creek,” said Pascucci, who has ice fished on the frozen ice but had not laced up to play hockey in over a decade. “They said 1989 was the last time they played out here.”

After some tentative one-on-ones that resembled more of a soccer player sizing up an opponent, skaters began to pick up speed. There were spectacular falls, crisp passes and ringing shots that hit the post and went in.

“It seems like the sooner you skate on it after you clear it, the better,” Marcello said as the game neared. “These kids are getting out there pretty good, but it’s definitely pond hockey. It’s not ice hockey.”

The less fluid approach was fine for players, young and old. It was a Winter Classic that doesn’t have to end.

“We’ll keep it clear,” Marcello said. “I don’t have a problem clearing snow. We encourage as many people as possible to come out and enjoy it.”

By Jim Krencik, Batavia Daily News

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