So nice on the ice 

Watching or playing, hockey is cool.

If it weren't for the invention of ice, summer in Arkansas would be intolerable. No iced tea at lunch. Nothing on the rocks to endure a hot night. No cold beer in the chest. Unthinkable.

Unlike iced tea, however, ice hockey is a cultural anomaly; ice skates do not hang from pegs in every garage as they do up north. But Yankees can eat barbecue and we can ice skate, at the Arkansas Skatium. Or if we don't ice skate (and few among the natives do) we can leave the sizzling sidewalks of summer (perhaps you remember the afternoon of Aug. 3, 2011, when it was 114 degrees?) and sit in a 50-to-55-degree ice rink and watch the brave on blades. "Harry Potter" book fans who long for real Quidditch — the game played in the air on brooms — should check out ice hockey. The guys in the men's league that plays on Thursday nights — the A players — fly on the ice, deftly and dizzyingly moving hockey's version of the golden snitch toward the goal. When players go in they fly over the wall of the dugout (or whatever a dugout is called in hockeyese) instead of skating out to the ice. It is something to behold, and there's no gore either, thanks to the rink's rule that there's no checking allowed on open ice.

R.J. David, 24, rink rat (he's worked at the Skatium since he was 13) and "hockey chief" for the Skatium's leagues, had 57 adult players in the 10-week league season that just ended. Some of the skaters grew up in Arkansas — there was a home-grown young doctor zipping around with the men's league last Wednesday night — and some are Arkansas drop-ins, here because of the Little Rock Air Force Base or private business. Some played for the RiverBlades, Little Rock's minor league hockey team in the late 1990s and early '00s that improbably had competition from another hockey team, the Glacier Cats. One plays for the Arkansas Razorbacks hockey team, and his 14-year-old brother is on the team too; they are the sons of the rink owner, Jay Gaddy. There are kids leagues, organized by the Arkansas Hockey Association; a beginner's developmental league (the "Rusty Blades"), and what David calls A, B and C players, with A the top and C players that haven't played in a while and want to get back into it. Women play with the men, though not as many as Simone Bellamy, who is the "commissioner" of the beginner adult leagues, a youth coach and on the youth association board, would like. She learned to skate and play hockey 10 years ago after watching the RiverBlades and started coaching kids at the request of the rink owner ("I told him he was on some serious crack," she said. All she had to do, he replied, was just "stand up."). She became certified later and is now one of five or six women hockey players who play regularly at the Skatium (she's a goalie).

The Skatium's ice rink is closed during the day until summer; a week-long kids' hockey camp will be offered in July. Young hockey players do skills and drills over the summer and resume play in winter; find out more about the youth leagues at www.usahockey.com/arkansas_ice_hock52. Adult games are played Sunday through Thursday nights; Sunday practice games are $10, free the first time to beginners.

The Skatium's exterior appearance (at 1311 S. Bowman Road) is a little depressing, with dirt and cigarette butts under the concrete seating supports, but those of us who grew up skating at Troy's Roller Rink on Asher will forgive that. The interior makes up for it, with its hot chocolate, cold temperature and friendly atmosphere. "Whatever does happen on the ice stays on the ice," David said, and the players usually have a beer together after the game. For more information on the Skatium's hockey leagues (or roller rink or figure skating classes) go to arkansasskatium.com or call 227-4333.

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