The ice at the Empire State Plaza rink was a bit soft for A.J. Fernando’s liking, but that didn’t matter much.
The 11-year-old from Albany was thrilled to slip on a pair of used skates his parents bought for him last year and spend the afternoon zipping around the rink with his 9-year-old brother, Kai. Now, he’s comfortable enough on ice that he’s starting to lobby for the rest of the gear he’ll need to take up hockey.
“I want to,” he said, throwing a glance at Chris Fernando, his father. “I just need the equipment.”
But he might not have gotten the chance to learn had it not been for a free pair of skates he was able to use three years ago. Chris Fernando said his son got a chance to try ice skating when a school hosted a free-to-learn program at another area rink.
Now, A.J. is a natural on the ice. He’s even teaching his younger brother some of the skills.
“We go all the time,” Chris Fernando said after the boys finished. “And they’re really good now.”
It’s one of the reasons the plaza, which opened its rink for the season on Friday, is a popular attraction for area residents. The ice rink is free to the public every day and this year will even provide free skates on Fridays.
The rink is operated by the state Office of General Services but is sponsored this year by more than a dozen private entities from around the Capital Region and beyond. The free skate rentals, for instance, came as a result of a donation from Hannaford Supermarkets.
“The skating rink belongs to the people of New York and is a good example of what Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo means when he talks about how important it is that government and the community work together,” OGS Commissioner RoAnn Destito said.
Up until last year, there seemed to be a chance the plaza would never see the rink open again. Like many areas of state government, the rink fell prey to the state’s budget crisis in 2008 and remained closed for three consecutive winters.
Then last December, the state received a $100,000 contribution from the Lake Placid Regional Winter Sports Committee to open the rink once more. The rink was set up and frozen within the month, allowing skaters to return to the ice on New Year’s Day.
This year’s opening on the day after Thanksgiving was chosen in part to appeal to families. Though the weather wasn’t exactly conducive to forming ice — midday temperatures crept into the mid-50s — the weather drew hundreds down to the plaza for the rink’s first day of operation.
Bill Kelly of Voorheesville brought several members of his extended family down to the rink simply to enjoy the outdoors on a beautiful day. His grandson, 6-year-old Will Kelly, was bashful about his skating experience off the ice but couldn’t hide his excitement while he zipped around the rink.
Even though he doesn’t come to the rink regularly, Kelly said he missed it during the winters it was shut down. Now with the good weather and family visiting, he said, it seemed like a good time to get re-acquainted with the pleasure of skating outdoors.
“It’s better being outdoors than it is being inside,” he said.