Despite the echoing of car horns bouncing off the towering Hartford, Conn., skyline, Megan and Zachary Lamphere’s joyful laughter could be heard inside Bushnell Park on a late December morning.
The 6-year old twins from Manchester, Conn., spun, glided and tumbled their way around the outdoor rink with Stanley Cup winning grins after learning to skate just three weeks earlier.
Megan, a self-described “ice dancer,” according to her mother Diana, and her brother were just two of thousands of people who have benefited from the city of Hartford’s Winterfest, a two-month long event featuring a 100 x 100 foot outdoor skating rink that offers free skate rentals, lessons and open public skating.
“It’s been teary [eyed] I guess you could say,” said Diana Lamphere, a mother of six. “If it wasn’t for them teaching [my kids] they really wouldn’t have picked it up at all, and I never would have thought about having them skate.”
Now in its third year, Winterfest was the vision and goal of Hartford mayor Pedro Segarra as a way to open up the city of Hartford’s public parks during the winter months.
“We have seen an increase in visitors from neighboring towns as far as Greenwich and have surpassed our numbers for last year,” Mayor Segarra said. “It’s been good for the surrounding businesses and for the entire capital city. The fact that it’s free is also important because it makes it accessible for everyone.”
Three years ago the only sound coming from the closed park would be an occasional dog barking.
However, from Nov. 23 until Jan 21 it was full of the sights and sounds of children and adults of all ages flocking to the park that sits in the shadows of the Connecticut State Capitol building.
Segarra reached out to Bob Crawford, a USA Hockey District director and owner of Champions Skating Center with 16 years of experience in the rink business, in October of 2010 with the idea of building an outdoor rink in the middle of Hartford.
“It’s something I always wanted to do. He didn’t have to ask twice,” said Crawford, who spent three of his eight years in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers.
“I had no idea what I was getting into. None. And I didn’t know I would enjoy it as much as I have. I didn’t know the community would take to it like they have in terms of popularity. We’re now a destination point.”
The original rink was nearly half the size of this year’s rink and was slated to remain open for four weeks before high demand extended the use of the rink for an extra two weeks.
It was a sign of things to come, and the interest and love for outdoor skating in Bushnell Park has continued to grow beyond belief with more than 75,000 people using the rink this year after hosting 20,000 skaters in 2010.
“It’s been really fun,” Zachary Lamphere said. “This is my second time skating, and the first time I didn’t know how. It was really hard, and I tried my best. Now I know how.”
Crawford called the Bushnell Park rink his “purest” because it offers kids a similar experience to what he had growing up in Canada skating on a frozen pond.
“In today’s world the weather is warmer so the natural ice places are water,” said Crawford, pointing to the pond located behind the rink.
“This is how it all started. Way back when you get the feeling that we all did as kids skating and playing on ponds. That stuff was part of the vision that made me want to do this.”
The most important aspect of Winterfest was keeping the outdoor rink free for the community. The city and Crawford, with the help of sponsors, volunteers and a small staff, provided 500 pairs of loaner skates, figure skating performances, free skating and hockey lessons. They also gave out a couple thousand pairs of gloves and mittens this year.
Volunteer Tyler Smith lives 200 yards from the rink and has spent the last 10 years living in downtown Hartford.
“The greatest thing is it has such a diverse appeal,” Smith said. “It’s the one place people can come from the suburbs and the city to a common place and share and enjoy something like skating. It’s a great unifier.”
According to Crawford, 95 percent of the skaters at Bushnell Park do not own a pair of skates, and about 70 percent of them are from Hartford.
One of those skaters is 20-year-old Hartford resident Rich Powell.
“It’s cool. You can get away from the urban community,” he said. “It’s a little hobby to keep my mind right.”
Yet the rink has also provided a new experience for those outside of the Hartford community, such as Powell’s Greenville, Ala., cousin Freddy Scarver.
“I learned to skate about three weeks ago,” said Scarver as he attempted to keep his balance on the ice. “We don’t have ice back home. The challenging part is doing the tricks.”
Winterfest, which also put on a New Year’s Eve celebration with fireworks and a jazz band, has become a staple point for the City of Hartford and will be for years to come said Crawford.
“I tell people it’s cold, it’s snowy and sometimes it’s rainy.
But it’s wonderful,” he said. “It’s a great community project that has succeeded.”