In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 5:34 PM on Tuesday, November 22, 2011

(Re)Learning to Skate Fun Way to Spend Chilly Afternoon

In our own backyard

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer


Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

Berand Pearson, 3, gets in some practice time on the ice during the learn-to-skate session at Kevin Bell Arena on Friday. Pearson was being helped by David Bell, son of the late Kevin Bell for whom the rink is named.

Sure cold, wintry days when the temperature dips below zero can create a longing for warm, tropical breezes or hot, parched deserts. However, with the ice and snow getting thicker, there's something to be said for a philosophy accredited to Robert Frost: The best way out is through.

In other words, might as well make the most of it.

So there I was last Friday, lacing on a pair of skates, strapping on a helmet and heading out onto the ice of the Kevin Bell Ice Arena for the weekly one-hour learn-to-skate session taught by Mark Vial.

Vial cuts the perfect image on ice. He's graceful, something that comes from years of skating. He wears an incredible sweater with the figure of a skater worked into the design. The sweater once belonged to Vial's elementary school teacher and long-ago hockey coach. Vial also wears a helmet, a reminder to be safe on the ice and a subtle way for those of us who can barely stand up and need all the protective gear we can wear to not feel uncool.

In fact, Vial is all about making everyone feel comfortable and have a good time. The afternoon I was there, his all-encompassing welcome included a 6-month-old making his first visit to the ice. Vial also was encouraging Brad Needham, the new rink manager who is just learning to skate, a good thing to do if you manage an ice rink. Vial's welcome stretched all the way to a couple gray-haired gals, one — Jeanne Doty — appeared to be increasingly comfortable on the ice and one — that would be me — who needed an adult walker of sorts to stay upright.

The learn-to-skate program is from 2:45-3:45 p.m. on Fridays. Vial's been teaching it since the rink opened in 2005. Skaters can wear their own skates or rent a pair at the rink. In exchange for an hour of time on the ice with Vial, skaters are asked to donate $5. His students range in ages from those that can barely walk to the 70-somethings.

"I've been skating since I was six," said Vial, who grew up in Anchorage and became comfortable gliding across the ice on outdoor rinks and iced-over driveways.

He's played hockey as a youngster and as an adult. These days, however, as the owner of VBS Heating Products, Vial takes important time away from his business to be at the rink every Friday and encourage new skaters.


Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

Joshua Morrison, 1, is all smiles while his aunt, Letitia Thomas, helps him maneuver across the ice.


"It's fun," he says, smiling as skaters swirl around him.

Nine-year-old Claire Bryant began taking lessons from Vial five years ago. It is clear she has taken those lessons to heart as she skates forwards, backwards and turns.

Her advice to others?

"Try it and practice," says Claire.

Letitia Thomas grew up in Homer and now lives in Oklahoma. Home for a visit, she was enjoying an hour of skating with family members, including her 6-month-old son, Shane. Bundled up in a warm snowsuit, Shane sat in his little walker in the middle of the rink, as his mom and aunts zoomed around the ice or helped Shane's 1-year-old cousin, Joshua, get the feel of his tiny little pair of skates.

Three-year-old Berand Pearson, dressed in a full set of hockey gear, made rounds of the rink with the added support of a chair. Pearson is involved in Homer Hockey Association's Microbells hockey program for 3- to 6-year-olds. Microbells meets on Sundays, but Berand was using the learn-to-skate hour to practice under the watchful eye of David Bell.

If Bell's name sounds familiar, it's because he's the son of Kevin Bell, from whom the rink gets its name. Kevin Bell's passion for hockey drew many to the sport before he died of brain cancer in 2008.


Photo by McKibben Jackinsky

Claire Bryant, 9, has the grace and speed of someone who has skated for five years. She learned from Mark Vial, who teaches the learn-to-skate program at the Kevin Bell Ice Arena.

Before the end of the learn-to-skate hour and after Berand had left the ice, David Bell made a few rounds of the rink. He was easy to spot, not just for his confidence and comfort as a skater, but because of the sweatshirt he was wearing. Across the back, it said, "What would Kevin Bell do?"

Vial is right: skating is fun, no matter the level of ability or the age. Judging from the rink's busy schedule, he and I aren't the only ones to think so.

"It's growing all the time," Vial says of the rink's increasing popularity. "Some of that comes from me teaching them how to skate."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at