Whether the weather outside is frightful — or a winter wonderland — Longshore’s PAL Ice Rink is open.
It was even open this weekend, despite frighteningly tropical temperatures.
For 19 years, the open-air spot just a few yards from Long Island Sound has been one of Westport’s most popular winter destinations. Families, teenagers, tweens — even, last Friday at 2 p.m., a guy in his 40s skating leisurely circles all by himself — flock to our improbable but beloved rink.
For all that time — a few years before, even — the one constant has been Tony Lantier. A Montreal native who as a kid spent every waking moment on the ice — at indoor rinks and outdoor ponds — he came south for his wife’s job.
In Canada, Tony had been a property manager. Soon after arriving in Westport, he met Angelo De Caro. The owner of Splash wanted to increase winter business at his off-the-beaten-path restaurant. What better way than to offer skating?
Tony got to work. He rented a 100 x 60-foot rink. He found a chiller. He and De Caro enlisted the vast resources of Westport PAL.
For 3 years, the rink was a wintertime fixture in the Splash parking lot. But skaters were not exactly diners. Diners were not exactly pleased to have to park in another lot. When the old Longshore bathhouses were ready to be torn down, Tony saw an opportunity to move the rink.
He and Parks and Recreation director Stuart McCarthy collaborated on a multi-use new building. Joey Romeo would rent it during good weather, to sell burgers and fries. In the winter, Tony would rent it for use by skaters.
The current rink is PAL’s 5th, and biggest. 200 feet long and 85 wide, it’s regulation size for hockey. The NHL won’t be playing matches there — but Staples’ boys and girls teams do. The large, board-banging crowds are great fun.
But — unlike other rinks in Fairfield County — hockey is not the main attraction. Lots of time is devoted to public skating. There are some lessons and private parties, plus an occasional low-key, late-night “pond hockey”-style group of hockey players. But most hours of most days — up to 11 p.m. — anyone can just skate.
And they do. Tony — who can talk for hours about ice, ice-making and ice maintenance — is proud that the rink operates virtually every day, from Thanksgiving weekend through early March. Only a drenching rain or humongous snowstorm closes it.
(And not always. Tony’s 50th birthday present was a state-of-the-art snow blower. He’s been known to pick up some up of his teenage employees after a heavy snow. They don’t have to drive in bad weather — but they can help him clear the rink.)
Black Friday was 67 degrees. But — thanks to 300 tons of refrigeration — the rink was open. And packed.
Skaters rely on it. Savvy ones know that a season pass — $150 for adults, $100 for children — is among the best bargains in town. The price includes not only unlimited skating, but skate rental or sharpening too.
Tweens make the rink their own on Friday and Saturday nights. In terms of a safe environment, the rink is this generation’s Arnie’s Place. Parents drop their kids off knowing they’ll have fun, and be looked after lovingly.
Tony loves everyone who skates. The other day, he spotted a 4-year-old wearing a Canadiens jersey. “Want to ride on the Zamboni?” he asked? He strapped her in, then took her on a special adventure.
Operating an outdoor rink is not cheap. Tony — who also owns Thin Ice Management, a consulting company that works with clients like the twin rinks at Shelton — spends $50,000 a year just to put in and take out the rink. His electric bill last year was $40,000.
But he loves what he does. His prices have not changed in 16 years.
“We don’t charge more. We just get better at what we do. And more people come,” he says.
He is a master of details. When the phone rings and he’s near, he answers it. The questions are invariably the same: “Are you open? How late?”
“I could let it go to the recording, with the same information,” he says. “But people want to hear a live voice.”
The rink’s website — redesigned recently by fellow Canadian and huge skating fan Michael Winser — includes a live webcam. It’s one more way to spread the word about Tony’s passion.
“On most days we have the best ice in Fairfield County,” he says. “I’m a perfectionist about it.”
About everything, really. He gets up at 3 a.m., to check (remotely) on the chiller. He’ll head to the rink from his nearby home at 6 a.m., just because he loves seeing the early-morning view, and breathing the bracing salt air.
Years ago, Ryan Partnership created an ad campaign for the PAL Longshore Ice Rink. “The coolest place in Westport,” they called it.
Now it’s the hottest too.