While I was driving recently through my newly adopted Mar Vista neighborhood, another recent arrival caught my eye and refused to let go. The sight was so unexpected that I had to pull over and check it out more closely.
The newcomer looked out of place resting on what used to be softball diamond No. 2 at Mar Vista Recreation Center. I knew the field that once stood there. It was where, years before, the team I played for clinched a championship trophy in a weekend warrior league. I believe I even dinked a crucial hit to right field to aid the cause that day.
Since then--as a gift to myself for my 40th birthday--I'd given up softball for roller hockey and endured a few embarrassing seasons chasing 20-year-olds with more resilient knee joints. I gave up the game without ever scoring a goal.
As the first roller hockey facility constructed in a Los Angeles city park, the Mar Vista rink marks the sport's coming of age. It also represents a triumph of the city's network of citizen boards that have been empowered to suggest ways to help the city's parks better meet the needs of their neighborhoods.
The origins of Mar Vista's state-of-the-art rink date to the early 1990s, when the popularity of hockey exploded in Southern California. The phenomenon was due both to the advent of inline skates--which made hockey moves easier and were cooler than the traditional "quads"--and to the influence of the L.A. Kings' Wayne Gretzky, ice hockey's consummate marketing tool.
Gretzky, holder of most of the National Hockey League's important scoring records, gave the downtrodden Kings new street credibility. His charisma also led to Disney's Mighty Ducks landing in Anaheim. All of this served to inflame local interest in youth hockey, both on ice skates and on wheels. New ice rinks and pay-to-play roller hockey facilities opened from North Hills to Orange County. Even so, finding a safe and desirable place to play remained every puckster's dilemma, which makes the new rink at Mar Vista a major addition.
As outdoor rinks go, it's a beaut. The concrete skating surface is smooth as ice. Fiberglass dasher boards surround the floor, just like at frozen hockey rinks. Instead of glass, an enclosure of chain link keeps wild pucks from flying onto Palms Boulevard.
In pickup games played on beach parking lots and schoolyards, skaters shoot between upturned trash barrels. Here, there are goalies who wear pads and guard actual nets. There's even an electric scoreboard, plus team benches, penalty boxes and bleachers. Lights too--sizzling white lamps on twin standards that are on most nights.
It's all due to the vision of Tom Ponton, a Mar Vista father of three who saw the need for a community hockey rink and who had the time and persistence to move the city's bureaucracy. It's a story with lessons for the advocates of improvements at other parks.
Ponton had helped coach in his son's hockey league at nearby Cheviot Hills Recreation Center and saw the program outgrow the small gymnasium there. The same thing happened at Mar Vista, where demand for hockey was squeezing basketball, volleyball and other activities for gym time.
As the chairman of Mar Vista's park advisory board, Ponton brought up the idea of an outdoor rink to relieve pressure on the gym and to give kids a good place to explore hockey.
He learned that a decent concrete rink with boards and fences would cost about $270,000. With help from the city, the board at Mar Vista applied for a grant under Proposition K, a bond measure that city voters approved in 1996 for improvements like this. They got $247,000, enough to make the project possible.
First, though, city parks officials had to be convinced that hockey was deserving. The sport was being played in organized fashion at only a few parks in the city. "They weren't too hot on the idea at first," Ponton recalled. But the park advisory board collected 200 letters of support from local parents, schools and other organizations.
Eventually, the parks department assigned grant writers to help Mar Vista secure the main chunk of needed money. The parents also got help from Lisa Gritzner, the chief deputy to City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski. "I've learned that if you have trouble at the bottom, you go to the top. She's been the project's guardian angel," Ponton said.
Fund-raising festivals and sponsors brought in the cash needed for the scoreboard, bleachers and lights. Archstone Communities, a development firm with plans to build apartments near the park, gave $14,000.
An additional $5,000 came from Operation Cleansweep, a city program that helps fund beautification. Local businesses also chipped in.
Construction began in June, and the completed 175-by-75-foot rink opened to skaters in November. Now, 182 boys and girls play on 16 teams organized by age and ability. Players range in age from 6 to 17. Each pays $70 and receives a jersey and trophies at a season-ending banquet.