It’s uncommon to stumble across a pick-up hockey game in Knoxville, Tennessee. Unless you know where to look.
Every Tuesday night at 8:45 p.m., a tiny skating rink off of Kingston Pike called the Ice Chalet holds open hockey. Bring your own equipment, $15 a player. Goalies skate free.
Players wear what they have, and the rainbow of jerseys, from old high school jersey to a professional player’s name across the back, suggest the diversity of the men who wear them. They range from high school kids to UT club players to guys with families who love to get on the ice.
“We just kind of get together, try to find goalies,” UT student Clayton Grider said. “Just enjoy hockey, and mess around.”
There are no coaches. Players on the bench shout their advice to the bodies on the ice. It’s not clear if anyone is keeping score.
“Does anyone know the Predators score?” is occasionally shouted over the din of skates scraping the ice, stick hitting puck hitting board.
This Tuesday night extravaganza is one of a dozen weekly activities by the Ice Chalet, Knoxville’s oldest year-round ice skating community.
“We have things for non-skaters, like curling and hockey,” Chalet employee Caleb Rogers said. “Everyday, we have at least two hours of time for freestyle people to come and practice skating, and most days we have classes of some sort, even if it’s just basic learning to skate.”
A full schedule of group activities is supplemented by daily public sessions.
“Every day, we have public session for three to four hours. A couple days, we have ten hour long public session,” Rogers said. “It’s a really good deal, because [at] a lot of ice rinks, you have to pay per hour, but we have a flat rate. So if you walk in here on a Saturday at noon and pay the price, you can skate until 10 o’clock that night, and it will be fine.”
Skaters who take lessons at the Chalet put on two annual shows. One takes place in the summer, and the other, Nutcracker on Ice, has been taking place every December for 30 years.
“Jews have Passover; Christians have Christmas; we have Nutcracker,” Rogers said.
The Chalet was opened in 1962 by WWII fighter pilot Chambliss Pierce, an investor with Chalet Ice Rinks, Inc. Its early history was one of financial struggle, until a German show skater named Robert Unger settled in Knoxville and saved the day.
Unger was instrumental in the founding of the Ice Skating Institute. ISI was different from traditional competitive figure skating because the emphasis was placed on performance and recreation instead of winning.
The first ISI competition, the Mississippi Valley District Figure Skating Competition, was held at the Ice Chalet in 1969. It continues there to this day, now known as the Robert Unger Skating Competition. The spirit of ISI, of Unger’s view of skating, also continues.
“We have competitions still…but it’s mostly about exhibition,” Rogers said. “We work on artistry, and we skate for the enjoyment of it, just for the sake of skating, rather than for the sake of winning. That’s why so many of us become show skaters.”
Rogers himself plans to become a show skater after he graduates from UT in May. Rogers has been skating at the Chalet since he was 10, and he’s been employed there since the age of 15.
Rogers describes himself as a combination of waiter, lifeguard and custodian. He describes the Chalet as a home.
“The Ice Chalet is definitely a family atmosphere that’s really good to be a part of,” Rogers said. “It’s sort of like it feels like a place where a family would live. A lot of ice rinks, you walk in, and it’s like a meat-packing freezer and cinderblock walls everywhere, metal. Here we [have] wood-paneled walls and a fireplace.”
The interior of the Chalet does suggest the warmth of families and Christmases past. Old skis and hockey sticks adorn the wood-paneled walls. Skates hang by their laces. The lobby is lit by a crackling fire and the glow of old-fashioned lamps.
Every surface is crowded with the memorabilia of the past half century. Plaques and trophies are proudly displayed, and nutcrackers of every size and variety watch over the skaters as the come and go.
The noise and the temperature in the ice rink itself will leave your ears ringing and your fingers stiff, but the lobby is cozy, anachronistic and warm.
Ice rinks are a rarity in East Tennessee, and Rogers knows this place is special.
“It’s just a really good thing,” Rogers said. “‘Cause not everybody’s interested in the typical sports, the typical hobbies. A lot of people went through karate, football, soccer, ballet, rifle shooting, whatever, and then they found ice skating, so that’s a good thing. It’s a niche we occupy.”
[October 12, 2017]