When Canes Country was Skate Town

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image by Thinkstock

by Karen Lewis Taylor

Even as the summer heat bakes our fair Southern city, we know that somewhere nearby, in any of a dozen deliciously cool ice rinks, hockey-loving residents of all ages are strapping on helmets and pads, tightening their skates, and gliding out to take their places around painted face-off circles. From little kids enrolled in learn-to-play programs all the way up to the pros in the Carolina Hurricanes, Raleighites these days love hockey and the climate-controlled environments where ice skating reigns.

We can probably thank the Canes, who took their place in Raleigh in 1999, for the proliferation of ice skating facilities and recreational hockey leagues in a region that not so long ago boasted only a couple of ramshackle ice rinks.
Probably the most memorable one for kids who grew up here in the ’70s and ’80s was the old Daniel Boone facility in Hillsborough, a cobbled-together complex with a cavernous rink pumped so full of frigid air that it was painful to inhale deeply. Once or twice a year, local kids like me who’d never even seen a hockey game made the trek over, usually with a birthday party, to slide (and fall) on that sleek, otherworldly surface. My friends and I would wait for them to play the theme to Ice Castles so we could imagine ourselves as tragically blind figure skaters and sigh a little over Robby Benson. Then we’d wobble back to the lobby to shed the unfamiliar layers of mittens and toboggan caps and drink hot cocoa in front of the roaring fire.
Ice skating wasn’t really a Southern thing yet. My Canadian husband recalls coming to N.C. State in 1979 and finding only a four-team club program for ice hockey. I suspect everyone he played with came from the frozen North, too.
No, in those days, roller skating was king, and all the kids I knew lived to lace up their skates – they had four fat wheels back then – and zoom off onto polished wood floors, singing along with Kool & the Gang. We can thank movies like Xanadu and Skatetown, USA, for bringing disco balls and skate-dancing to family skate centers in the Triangle. There were no hockey boards around the rink at the old Skate Town on Glenwood Avenue, just shag carpet on the walls and on those mushroom-shaped benches where we’d tend to our blisters in between doing the hokey-pokey and giggling at the couples’ skates.
No one wore helmets or knee pads. The most protection we needed against injury was a pair of sateen short-shorts, striped knee socks and, if we were really cool, a comb in our back pocket.
The skating rink was a fun place for young people, one where our parents felt safe letting us roam around with our friends. I remember going to Skate Town with my church youth group and, later, to Sportsworld in Cary with a club from junior high. Skating rinks catered to kids on Friday and Saturday nights at a time when other suitable options were pretty limited. Younger ones hung out in packs strictly segregated by gender, and teens paired up shyly when the lights went down and Journey’s Open Arms started playing.
Eventually, newer and more exciting venues came along – the teen dance club Julian’s, which opened off of Old Wake Forest Road about 1985, brought about the end of my skating days – and some rinks were forced to find other ways to stay in the black. Skate Town apparently served double-duty as a live music venue in the mid-’80s (hosting The Replacements, among others) before closing a decade later. I still remember the cry that went up in 1998 when the longtime owners sold the property to Public Storage. They razed those hallowed walls, no doubt shorn of their shaggy coverings by then, and put up a climate-controlled storage center. Raleighites of a certain age were crushed.
By then, in-line skates had been around for nearly a decade, and the Carolina Hurricanes were in their temporary home in Greensboro. Within four years, we had Stanley Cup finalists in Raleigh, and sparkly new ice rinks were springing up all over the Triangle. Older skate centers that survived the ’90s now featured boards and paint that proved that hockey, not skate-dancing, was king. Some facilities converted to ice, while others put down smooth new floors ideal for roller hockey. Even I – married by now to the Canadian – owned a pair of Rollerblades and spent my Sunday evenings watching rec-league games at rinks from Hillsborough to Capital Boulevard.
Today, family skate centers still hold public skates, of course, and my kids have enjoyed summer camps, birthday parties and playdates on wheels as well as blades. Jelly Beans, the roller-skating successor to Sportsworld (which is now the Cary Polar Ice House), offers arcade games, snacks, a light and sound show, and a gleaming hardwood skate surface for both in-line and old-school “quad” skates.
Local middle schools hold fundraisers there. Parents drop their teens and tweens off on Friday and Saturday nights for chaperoned fun with their friends. They even have a disco ball and carpet-covered mushroom benches. My teenager has reported the occasional – and to her, hilarious – party of over-the-hill patrons on quad skates falling down a lot and laughing.
No doubt they’re waiting for the DJ to play Celebration. Maybe they’ll let me join them.