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Allure of ice spawns rink rivalry

Four years ago, when Carol and Richard Wasilewski wanted to open an ice skating rink in Pinellas County, they couldn't find anybody to finance it. "We had no backing," Mrs. Wasilewski said. "All the people we talked to thought it was a good idea, but they didn't want to risk any money on it."

The Wasilewskis plunged ahead, anyway, and now own the Sun Blades Ice Skating Center in Clearwater. Sure enough, keeping the ice fresh and the doors open hasn't been easy.

"It's been like pulling teeth," Mrs. Wasilewski said. "I guess it's always harder when you're pioneers."

For a business that's been struggling to interest Florida children in Northern sports, the announcement that Tampa would get a National Hockey League franchise sounded like a godsend.

But now the pioneers have to face off against a competitor.

Joel Tew and Ken King plan to build a major skating complex in Oldsmar and call it the Tampa Bay Skating Academy. Set to open before Christmas, the $2-million complex would feature a pair of rinks, a weight room, a dance studio, locker rooms, a concession stand and a viewing area.

The owners of the Tampa Bay Skating Academy already are negotiating with the Tampa Bay Lightning to provide training facilities for the new hockey team. So are the owners of Sun Blades. Talks with both are still in the preliminary stages, said team spokesman Barry Hanrahan.

The duel over the hockey deal is just one sign of a rink rivalry developing in the unlikeliest of places. If the new skating academy is built, subtropical Pinellas, with 851,659 people, will have three year-round ice skating sites.

Manhattan, with 1.5-million people in a far chillier clime, has just one.

An extra 12 feet

The competition is a polite one so far. Mrs. Wasilewski says she salutes Tew's efforts to start a new rink. And Tew says, "With the advent of hockey, there should be enough business to go around."

But the Wasilewskis were stung by recent comments at an Oldsmar City Council meeting.

King, a Clearwater developer who is financing the venture, said Olympic hopefuls who want to practice figure skating need an Olympic-size rink, like the one he and Tew will build.

One of those Olympic hopefuls is 10-year-old Jennifer Tew, who inspired her father to plan the Oldsmar rink. She told the council that without the rink her father is building, she and other figure skaters "would have to move away from home" to train.

In response, the Wasilewskis posted a letter in the entrance to Sun Blades. It says: "It's not elaborate rinks that produce champions."

The Sun Blades rink, off Ulmerton Road, is 12 feet shorter than the two 200-by-85-foot rinks that Tew and King have planned for a site just north of Tampa Road in Oldsmar.

At 188 by 85 feet, the Sun Blades rink meets the minimum standard for the U.S. Figure Skating Association. The extra 12 feet offered by the Oldsmar rinks "really doesn't mean a hill of beans," Mrs. Wasilewski said.

Tew, a Clearwater lawyer, wouldn't comment specifically on the Wasilewskis' letter. "I do not plan to debate the adequacy of their rink and ours in the newspaper," he said.

But he did say the size of the rink doesn't count as much as "the overall quality and magnitude of the entire facility." And as far as he's concerned, "there is a need for our facility."

Jeff Kohr agrees. He's assistant manager of Centre Ice, the small but immensely popular skating rink in Countryside Mall.

At 110 by 55 feet, Centre Ice isn't big enough to compete with Sun Blades. Instead, the smaller rink has helped build local interest in skating and funneled the more serious customers to the larger Sun Blades.

"That's been excellent for us and for them," Mrs. Wasilewski said.

But Kohr says Sun Blades, although just nine miles south of the mall, is "a bit far to drive." Because Tew is president of the skating club at Centre Ice, "we've got a little agreement with them," Kohr said.

The agreement isn't in writing, he said, just a verbal agreement to cooperate. From now on, Kohr said, Centre Ice will be referring customers to the new Tampa Bay Skating Academy.

Team support

Among the most faithful customers at Sun Blades have been members of the University of South Florida (USF) hockey club. The club has practiced and played home games at the Clearwater rink for two years.

The club isn't sponsored by the university. Much of the club's $10,000-a-year budget comes out of the players' pockets, said David Walkowiak, the assistant captain and a founding player.

The largest expense, about $6,000, is the cost of renting the ice for games and practice at $100 to $150 an hour, he said.

The Wasilewskis have been generous with the club, giving it special rates for ice time, Walkowiak said. But the rink in Oldsmar would be closer to USF and perhaps nicer to play in, as well, he said.

Although the builders of the Oldsmar rink have talked of luring the hockey club away from Sun Blades, they have not approached any of the club members yet. But a switch is possible, Walkowiak said.

"Cost is going to be the determining factor," he said.

A labor of love

In the competition between the rinks, the irony is as thick as the ice.

Like Tew, the Wasilewskis built their rink because of a daughter interested in figure skating _ Nicole Wasilewski.

And like Tew, the Wasilewskis view their rink operation as a labor of love. Sun Blades "has not been a big moneymaking project," Mrs. Wasilewski said.

Heating the building year-round, for instance, is a major expense. So is putting down a new coat of ice every 45 minutes.

The Wasilewskis make their money building houses and designing commercial buildings. They use those profits to keep Sun Blades open from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week, Mrs. Wasilewski said.

For the past two years, whenever the doors opened in the morning, Tew's daughter was there to practice her figure skating. And she would show up at Sun Blades for several hours of practice every afternoon, too.

"We're very proud of her," Mrs. Wasilewski said.

Because Jennifer has been a Sun Blades customer so long, Tew said he has come to regard the Wasilewskis as old friends.

But all that will change June 10.

Just as she told the Oldsmar City Council, Jennifer Tew is leaving home June 10 to go to Cleveland to train.

Her teacher there will be Carol Heiss-Jenkins, who won the gold medal for figure skating in the 1960 Olympics.

Jennifer won't come home until five months later.

That's when her father's new rink is scheduled to open.