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Q & A

March 07, 1994|CHRIS WOODYARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DON BARTELSON

Owner, Ontario Ice Skating Center

Don Bartelson, 53, is a district representative of the Ice Skating Institute of America, a rink owners' trade group based in Illinois. His district includes Southern California. A former skater and instructor, Bartelson bought the Ontario Ice Skating Center in 1984 and transformed it from a business on the verge of collapse to a going concern. Bartelson spoke last week with Times staff writer Chris Woodyard about the effect of the Olympic Games and the growing popularity of professional ice hockey on the ice-rink industry.

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Question: The ice-rink industry is on a high. Why?

Answer: There are four ingredients that will never happen again. We are never going to have two Olympic Games 24 months apart. No. 2, the Kings are not in the immediate future headed to the Stanley Cup playoffs again. No. 3, we are never again going to have the Mighty Ducks being a new (National Hockey League) franchise. No. 4--the kicker, which is responsible for 30% of the new business we have had--we are never again going to have the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding situation. What our industry is wondering is, are we going to return to the normal four-year cycle? We hope not.

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Q: Why not?

A: Business declines. It's peaks and valleys. For the health of the industry, we have to try to reach more of a level.

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Q: Has business picked up in the past year because of the Mighty Ducks?

A: Yes. Usually we can do percentages and say the Olympics brought in this much new business, or NHL hockey brought in this much. This year, it's a little hard to break that one down. A year ago the majority of our enrollment was in hockey. This month, it's five to one in figure skating. . . . We have had approximately 30 hours of ice sports in front of people forthe past three weeks during the Olympics. If it weren't for that, none of (the increase in business) would take place.

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Q: What about the Kerrigan-Harding affair?

A: That situation bothers me, sportsmanship-wise. And a verdict, guilty or not guilty, does not matter. I am concerned about that type of image being portrayed to youngsters. I feel a very strong moral situation there.

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Q: Are rinks doing anything to get away from having to depend on events like the Olympics to bring in new skaters?

A: We have done an incredible job of creating public awareness to ice sports. You will find now that rinks do cable-TV advertising, particularly on Mighty Ducks and Kings games. (The Ducks' founder, Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael) Eisner is a genius, and he really offers more. When you go to a Mighty Ducks game, it is more than a hockey game.

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Q: Hockey took years to catch on in Southern California. Why did it finally take hold?

A: Wayne (Gretzky) brought hockey to Southern California. I don't think there's a doubt in anybody's mind. Wayne is really responsible for major public awareness of the sport of ice hockey. Look at his image. He's wonderful.

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Q: Do you find there are a lot of older people who are interested in hockey?

A: This is a market we are now going to be able to service better. For instance, there are 25-year-olds who have never been on ice skates, let alone hockey skates, and they want to be hockey players. We can teach them to skate, play hockey and become a member of a team.

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Q: What does it take to be successful in the ice-rink business?

A: Patience and long-term goals. You need to look at the picture in a decade situation, not in a 48-month situation. What is going to happen to the sport? Where are we going to be? Certainly the visibility of ice sports is going to continue to increase.

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Q: Are new ice rinks being built?

A: Yes. There are a lot of new rinks going on line. Disney is talking about that.

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Q: Ice rinks were going into shopping malls for a while. What happened?

A: It's all due to money. Mall space rents are ridiculously high. They used to do it to draw people in, but now those numbers don't work. They have to have 'X' number of dollars per square foot.

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Q: What is the peak season for ice skating?

A: Thanksgiving through Easter. That's for public skating

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Q: Because people want a wintry kind of experience?

A: Absolutely.

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Q: So how do rinks struggle through the summers?

A: By arranging enough organized programs, which the Ice Skating Institute of America offers to all rink owners. I'm really family-oriented, encouraging people to bring the whole family.

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Q: How do you deal with girls who want to be the next Nancy Kerrigan? Don't most of them have false hopes?

A: This is why we offer recreational programs. If they find out they are not going to be Nancy Kerrigan, they can still participate and have fun in a healthy environment.

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Q: Are there a certain number of stage mothers in this business?

A: I don't know which is worse, the stage mother or the hockey father. They are both at the same back door, beating each other up to get into the arena.

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On America's fascination with Olympic ice skating. . .

"There is a certain amount of mystique and glamour. It encompasses so much of an individual. It takes a complete package to make that Olympic team, to be able to stand under those five rings."

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On the effect of the in-line roller skating fad on ice rinks. . .

"It increased our business. Once you step on a pair of skates, it's friction versus non-friction."

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On the future of the industry. . .

"There is a possibility that we are going to see the world of ice skating change. I'm not sure how--perhaps more of a family experience."

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On areas for expansion. . .

"There is still room for growth in certain markets. The most explosive market we have in this country is the Sun Belt states, Florida especially."

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