There were those cruises from Rax to DiCarlo’s or from Hardee’s to McDonald’s and the rides to Wilson Lodge’s arcade or through the Festival of Lights during the winter months, but that’s when transportation other than a daddy drop-off was an option.
Before those years though, for middle school-aged kids anyway, the Wheeling Park Ice Rink was the landing ground for a social mecca where it always proved impossible to divide the girls to one side and the boys to the other. That was true, too, inside the large locker room area, at the rental counter, and in the line for the concession stand because kids ages 12 to 18 from schools located up and down the Ohio River melted together here for decades.
“I think we liked it because it was the one place everybody was going to be,” said Kellie Greeley White, a 1985 graduate of Wheeling Park High School. “We were completely unsupervised by parents or any adult, and there were never any problems, and I frankly don’t even remember being that cold. We were always moving and having so much fun.
“I think it was also the place where kids from all different schools got together and had fun, and it was cheap and always available,” she continued. “I’m not sure why it was so great, but it is definitely an extremely happy time to look back on. I think also part of it is that it was our special place. We didn’t need adults to tell us what to do there, and there were no teachers or parents, and it all somehow worked out fine. In the days before cell phones it was harder to make plans and to find people, but you always knew you’d have friends at the skating rink.”
Nat Goudy, the manager of operations at Wheeling Park, started working there when he was only 14 years old back in 1989. He recalls the enormous crowds of kids during those weekend evenings and noted the differences between the rink’s heyday and the realities he’s met with on Friday and Saturday nights now.
“I really don’t think I’ll ever see the ice rink that crowded again,” Goudy said. “We all know that we have lost a lot of population, so the crowds are nowhere close to what they were when I started here many moons ago. I believe we averaged back then between 800-900 on Friday and Saturday nights.
“It was during the 1990s when we started to see the crowds shrink down,” he continued. “If we are crowded on a Friday or Saturday night these days, that means we have around 300 kids here, but we did have more than that a couple of times during the Christmas vacation.”
Goudy, though, has noticed an uptick in attendance over the past five to 10 years.
“WAHA has remained a very popular organization for parents and children through the years, so hockey has remained very popular, and part of that has to do with the Wheeling Nailers, too,” he said. “The Nailers going to the ECHL finals last year had a lot of the kids pretty excited, and figure skating has remained really popular, too.
“That’s why, every few years, we try to make improvements on the ice rink level of the White Palace because even though the crowds aren’t as big as when I was a kid, this facility still gets used a lot each winter,” Goudy said. “One thing the park did recently was purchase 30 pairs of hockey skates, and the Figure Skating Club did a fundraiser to buy new figure skates, and that’s been a tremendous help because, over the years, the skates we’ve had needed to be replaced, and we need every pair on the weekends.”
To those who flow down that ramp to the admissions counter these days, the Wheeling Park Ice Rink may appear pretty much the same as it did 35 years ago, but the Wheeling Park Commission made a large investment in preparation for this winter season by shelling out more than $600,000 for new compressors.
“That’s the equipment that chills the ice for us, so it was important for that project to take place,” Goudy said. “And in the future we’re looking at doing some cosmetic things that will made this entire facility more attractive than it is today. We are discussing everything with our partners from WAHA and the Figure Skating Club so we can find out all of their ideas, too.
“The only major project that is on the radar right now concerns the pipes that are located under the rink because they are the same pipes that were installed in the 1950s,” the operations manager reported. “I believe that would be a project that will need to be addressed at some point in the future.”
While Friday and Saturday evenings remain the most popular times to skate those circles at the municipal rink, another difference that’s become apparent to Goudy is a fear of frigid temperatures.
“Friday night is our bigger night usually each weekend, but it also depends on the weather, especially the temperature,” Goudy explained. “We didn’t get much of a crowd during the first weekend in January because the temperatures were in the single digits, but then again they usually cancel school when it’s that cold, too.
“The high 30s are normally the ideal temperatures for a big crowd to come skating, especially at this time of year because that’s pretty warm for January,” he said. “I think when it’s really, really cold people, have started doing some other things instead of being outside, but I don’t remember that stopping anyone back in the ’80s and ’90s. At least that’s how it seemed.”
Those frigid temperatures back then didn’t stop Carol Lowe, another young lady who frequented the Wheeling Park Ice Rink during the 1980s and who now has three children who have done much the same.
“It was never too cold to go skating,” she said. “It’s funny because one of my daughters tries to tell me it’s not cold on the ice. I’m so glad she goes. My oldest daughter used to go all of the time too.
“I loved to skate back then, and it was our social life, and there was a bunch of us girls from the Elm Terrace Area that used to go every weekend,” Lowe added. “We really enjoyed it when they had the Park Dance atmosphere during those evenings. I loved that, too.”
For many winters during the 1980s and ’90s the Wheeling Park administration hired local disc jockeys to man the turntables and play what was most popular, and that included a few slow songs for “couples’ skate.”
“That’s the other thing that I remember very well, the music,” said Greeley White, a resident of Severna Park, Md. “Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’ album and, of course, ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ and ‘Good Times’ by Chic.
“I think in many ways (ice skating at Wheeling Park) summarizes growing up in the 1980s (in Wheeling). It was kind of like ‘The Wonder Years’ TV show. It had everything: boys, girls, couples’ skates, and, of course, horrible embarrassment when you try to do a hockey stop and ended up flattening yourself on the plexiglass. It signified Rites of Passage.”
One of them, however, has faded to a finish, and that’s those on-ice, boy-asks-girl – or vice versa – mandated minutes.
“There have been some changes that have been made, and one of them is we no longer have the slow songs or the couples’ skate because we went away from that,” Goudy said. “We’re just letting all of the kids skate as much as they can up until 10 p.m., and then they all go home.
“If there’s a couple that want to skate together, they can do that at any time they want on those nights, and there’s some of that, but that’s just another thing that has changed since I was a kid,” he added. “During the week the atmosphere is great for moms and dads and their young kids because there’s usually not a lot of teenagers here during those times whipping around the ice like they tend to do on those Friday and Saturday nights.”
Some of the rules and routines may have changed since Goudy, Lowe, and Greeley White were amongst the puberty-crazed crowd, but Wheeling resident Tammy Donley-Palmer is thankful she was a kid then and not now.
“It does make me sad sometimes how fast kids are growing up today. It seems they have no carefree fun anymore,” she said. “Cell phones and the Internet are amazing for having constant contact with the world, but they’ve also ruined our kids’ youth.
“I’m so glad my winter days and nights were spent at that old rink — face freezing, hands numb, and wearing layers of clothes and my Bauer hugger hockey skates from Kelly Mike’s.”
The Wheeling Park Ice Rink, open from mid-October until mid-March each season, is open seven days a week with afternoon hours on weekdays and the evening hours Friday and Saturday nights, and the concession stand has been relocated since Donley-Palmer slid around and around.
“Who can forget the French fries there? They were the best,” she recalled. “We didn’t have cell phones or social media then, and we had more down time, so that’s how we all saw our friends.
“My friend Lori Waller and I sometimes would go Friday night, Saturday day and night, and then during the day on Sunday, too,” Donley-Palmer added. “Skating was our social time and exercise in the winter months, and it was the best — skating around in a circle for hours.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)