Even when Bakersfield is cold, it’s not really that cold. Remember the 70-degree heat last Friday? As nice as it is for us not to have to shovel snow from our driveways, it does make that picturesque Winter Wonderland everyone sings about a little harder to come by.
But the fact that water very rarely freezes here isn’t stopping the Bakersfield Condors from doing the impossible: building a full-size ice rink in the middle of Bakersfield College’s Memorial Stadium and opening it up for nearly three weeks of public skating and youth and adult hockey, culminating in a pair of big outdoor hockey games, one of them featuring the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky.
The project is called Winterfest, and to say it’s been a lot of work is an understatement.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” said Ryan Holt, Condors director of media relations and broadcasting. “If you told me (years ago), we’d be able to skate outdoors in Bakersfield, I would have called you crazy.”
Working with the San Diego-based Golden State Hockey Rush, the Condors are in the middle of the days-long process of building the rink. Starting last week with literal tons of sand to lay as the rink’s foundation, Monday the crew was installing the pipes that will keep the rink frozen for the duration of Winterfest. Rich Cubin, owner of the outdoor rink-making business, explained that heat transfer fluid would run through the pipes to keep the ice that will later be installed on top of them nice and solid. It will take about three days to build the ice, Cubin said, and this weekend, he and his crew will paint the ice before adding another, thinner layer of ice on top of that.
“It will look different every day as we go along,” said Cubin, who regularly builds one to three outdoor rinks a year. Soon “it will really take shape as a rink.”
During the hours the rink is open to the public, guests can enjoy ice-skating, bounce houses, an obstacle course and a 220-foot zip-line, all also on the field. A pass to Winterfest is $20, and a ride on the zip-line is an extra $10. For those who are only accompanying ice-skaters and not doing any of the activities themselves, there’s no charge to sit and watch.
“If you’ve lived in Bakersfield your entire life, you’ve probably never skated outside,” Holt said. “For those of us from a colder climate, it’s kind of customary.”
The public skate days (and a 5K on Dec. 31) will help to drum up excitement leading up to the two big games before the rink closes: the National Hockey League Alumni & Celebrity Game featuring NHL legends Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille on Jan. 6 and the Three-Way Chevrolet Condorstown Outdoor Classic where the Condors will take on the Ontario Reign on Jan. 7.
“We want people to be able to experience everything beforehand,” Holt said. “Come first and then we’ll finish with a bang with the outdoor game.”
Youth and adult hockey teams from all over the western United States will take the ice earlier in Winterfest’s season, which will be a big boon to the town’s economy as those players and their families stay in local hotels and check out local businesses, Holt said. Around 100 teams are expected to play.
“They’re getting to play on the same ice NHL and AHL players will play on,” Holt said of the non-professional players. “It’s definitely special for them.”
Holt said the Condors are always trying to push the envelope for fun ideas, and Winterfest was about “challenging ourselves to do something new.”
Outdoor games aren’t uncommon for either hockey league, but it is a first for Bakersfield. That, combined with the fact that an outdoor ice rink in town has up to now seemed impossible, encouraged the Condors to go for it.
Winterfest was dreamed up about a year ago, Holt said. Condors president Matt Riley had long thought an outdoor game in sunny California, framed by palm trees, would be fun for players and fans alike. Working with BC, the Condors’ parent team, the Edmonton Oilers, a few sponsors and Golden State Hockey Rush, the year of planning is finally paying off, with the Condors seeing the fruit of their labor slowly coming together on the football field.
“It’s been a long process,” Holt said, adding that putting on Winterfest isn’t even the Condors’ sole focus right now, with two regular home games being played at Rabobank Arena within the same time frame, plus the game on Jan. 7. Winterfest “is a big nugget dropped in the middle of our season.”
Building and maintaining a rink, plus everything else that’s going on at Winterfest, isn’t cheap. Holt said it’s a multimillion dollar project, one that wouldn’t be possible without partnerships and sponsors, but what it gives back to the community is worth it for the hockey team.
Winterfest is a huge project, but it wasn’t something the people at Bakersfield College shied away from, even a little. Early this year, Riley called Mary Jo Pasek, the school’s community relations manager, to talk about BC hosting the Condors for their big event. Pasek was immediately on board and thought everyone else at BC would be too.
“I got the movers and shakers at BC in the same room” for a presentation by Riley, Pasek said. “Everybody was so for it. There wasn’t a single solitary one who had a negative thought.”
As the 19,000-capacity stadium transforms throughout the week, Pasek and others at BC are even more excited. In particular, Pasek was tickled by the sight of a Zamboni parked on campus.
“We couldn’t be happier already with what we’ve seen,” she said, adding that the phone has been ringing off the hook since Gretzky was mentioned. “It’s just going to generate goodwill throughout the community.”
It’s a good thing BC approved whole-heartedly, because the Condors didn’t exactly have a back-up plan should the school have declined.
“We’re thankful they believed in our project,” Holt said. “Memorial Stadium was the spot. It’s iconic. I’ve never seen a community college with a stadium like that. It’s going to be perfect for hockey. Every seat is a perfect seat for watching the game.”
Winterfest, the Outdoor Classic and the Alumni game are “a way to highlight not only the Condors organization, but the city of Bakersfield,” Holt said. “That’s what we’re all about.”
Holt and Pasek hope the community will turn out for what promises to be a unique event.
“It’s certainly once-in-a-lifetime,” Holt said. “I don’t think we’ll be doing this next year, but you never know.”