As the sounds of music, chatter and laughing children filled Dublin Iceland, members of the local Jewish community came together on Sunday to mark the in-person return of one of the Tri-Valley's popular holiday celebrations.
Chanukah on Ice, held by Chabad of the Tri-Valley, is one of several traditions that was able to be back in 2021 following last year's COVID surges and stay-at-home orders. Festivities were led by Rabbi Raleigh Resnick, who laced up his skates and took to the ice for a decorative Menorah lighting late in the afternoon, ahead of the official observance at sunset on Sunday night.
This year's Chanukah on Ice marked a return of the event, which had grown in popularity for several years prior to the pandemic. Resnick said the turnout Sunday was bigger than ever though, and the crowd was tangibly excited to resume in-person community events.
Dublin Iceland's reopening to the public this past spring brought back access to the Tri-Valley's only full-sized ice rink, which was limited to some private lessons and small classes, all with ample social distancing, during pandemic shutdowns.
Hayley Parker, longtime Iceland staffer and niece of manager Steve Nelson, said that Sunday's private event was one of a smaller number Dublin Iceland had hosted since reopening. However, the rink has been in demand, despite the unpredictability in attendance, with approximately 300 skaters coming out during busy times, such as Saturday mornings.
While private events have slowed down, the rink has been consistently hosting a full schedule of skating and hockey classes of all levels for ages 5 and up, as well as recreational skating.
Dublin Iceland is also one of the facilities that hosts St. Moritz skating club, which the Tri-Valley's most well-known figure skating champion, Kristi Yamaguchi, is an alumna of. In addition to her many accomplishments, ranging from Olympic gold to her Always Dream Foundation, aimed at promoting childhood literacy, the Alamo resident has made her mark close to home, with an outdoor ice rink bearing her name at City Center Bishop Ranch in San Ramon.
With the smaller, seasonal rink, Yamaguchi said her goal was to expand access to skating for the winter holidays, and introduce the sport in a family friendly way that could hopefully inspire aspiring athletes of all ages to practice regularly at a local, year-round facility.
"It's never too late to start -- get out there," Yamaguchi said.
Although Yamaguchi is the most recognizable ice skating star to come out of the area, she said that she was in good company locally, including skaters from her home club, St. Moritz, who were among the performers at the grand opening of the City Center rink on Nov. 17.
"The Tri-Valley has a great pool of talent," Yamaguchi said.
In addition, Yamaguchi said that South Bay locals Vincent Zhou and Karen Chen, as well as Alyssa Liu, who was born in Richmond, would be ones to watch in competitive figure skating. In particular, Yamaguchi has long been an outspoken fan of Chen's.
"She has the grace, the interpretation, if she really pulls it together," Yamaguchi said.
Yamaguchi added that one trend she sees in the present era of figure skating is that skaters are seeking to stand out and define themselves as much as possible during their notoriously short-lived competitive careers.
"They want to make a mark on the sport," Yamaguchi said. "Longevity is not something common in skating anymore."
Although Yamaguchi herself didn't put on skates for the grand opening of her namesake rink in San Ramon last month, the event did showcase performances from local figure skaters, which Yamaguchi said was necessary.
"It wouldn't be an ice rink opening without these beautiful performers," she remarked.
In addition to Dublin Iceland, local skaters are able to train year-round at Tri-Valley Ice in Livermore. Longtime skating coach Adrienne Anderson, who was hired at rink to facilitate its expansion from hockey rinks to include figure skating, said that despite the limited space, the two smaller rinks at the Livermore facility are prime for offering training in the supportive and comfortable atmosphere she's sought to foster for young skaters.
"My whole thing is if you don't make the children happy, and you don't love what you're doing, you're not the right coach to be here," Anderson said. "I think that's why our school does so well, because the coaches that I've chosen do have that special quality."
Anderson cited a supportive atmosphere, the strong foundations in the US Figure Skating Association curriculum she uses, and the power of muscle memory for minimal impacts on her skaters' abilities during the pandemic.
"It only took maybe one or two times on the ice before they were able to get back into what they were doing before the pandemic happened," Anderson said.
In addition to the competition circuit, figure skaters at Tri-Valley Ice are gearing up for group and solo performances for Christmas recital next Saturday (Dec. 11). The event is set from 2-4 p.m. at 6611 Preston Ave. in Livermore.
The Kristi Yamaguchi Holiday Ice Rink at City Center Bishop Ranch is open daily from noon to 9:30 p.m. through Jan. 2. Tickets are available for 90-minute blocks, with proceeds going to Yamaguchi's Always Dream Foundation.
Dublin Iceland and Tri-Valley Ice are open year-round, with a schedule of family skating, classes and private lessons at various times.