by Lou Mancinelli
In the early 1950s, it was neighbors who envisioned the Wissahickon Skating Club (WSC), corralled local resources and funded the construction of the rink, which has been serving the community at Cherokee Street and Willow Grove Avenue ever since then.
Today, the driving force that keeps the Zamboni cleaning the ice is still neighbors and volunteers who organize and manage the private club, from its business affairs to its programs like basic skating skills, tots and figure skating and senior hockey, with men as old 74 as on the ice.
In 2011 its intermediate synchronized skating team competed at nationals, as did the juvenile team this year. The club produced Stanley Cup and Hall of Fame NHL goalie Mike Richter and numerous Division 1 and 3 players at schools such as Yale, Wisconsin, Harvard and Vermont. Oscar Iobst, who served as WSC’s president in the 1970s, later served as President of the United States Figure Skating Association (USFA).
Led by investor and former Yale hockey player Jack Fearey, a group of prominent Chestnut Hill and eastern Montgomery County families decided to create the club more than a half-century ago. Town meetings were held. They raised $3000 by asking for $5 donations from local families to determine who might be interested. They called it the “$5 Dollar Club.”
Today, the club has 459 members, 148 of whom are family members. On Friday nights it offers public skating year round except when the club closes for maintenance in July. WSC is offering a $2 discount to the skate-around on Friday, Nov. 2.
“It’s a family club,” said Jerry Quill, board member since 1974. Quill, 74, a former Colgate defenseman, plays senior hockey three times a week at the club.
“What we want,” he said about men’s and senior hockey (he has played as a captain in both), “is when in the third period when you’re totally wiped out, for a forward to come all the way down the ice and help me on a two-on-one.”
Quill has served on and off as treasurer, is head of the junior hockey committee and coached hockey at various levels while his son played and even afterwards. He provided us with some of the club’s history during a recent conversation.
When neighbors realized the level of interest, they floated bonds ranging from $500 to $10,000. In 1954 they raised $250,000, and the rink was open for skating a year later. By 1960, the public skating had become such a success that it enabled the construction of the upstairs Muehlbronner Lounge and the rear locker rooms to take place.
The Muehlbronners, Walter and Irene, were original members. As a figure skating pair, they won silver medals in the 1949 and 1950 U.S. Championships. Their son Wally grew up in the club, and now he coaches the celebrated La Salle College High School team.
The family is one example of many who have remained involved with the club for years. Some of today’s members are third-generation. Marshall Schwartz’s grandparents took him to the club, and now he takes his grandchildren.
To become a member, one must be sponsored. A good way to accomplish that is by attending public events and getting to know other members. Before members can join any of its figure or synchro skating or hockey programs, one must pass its basic skating tests. Those are based on levels set by the USFA. As such, the club has earned a reputation for teaching people how to skate well and for producing quality skaters.
Its coaches and instructors contribute to that reputation. Ron Radke was a nationally ranked speed skater. Gump Whiteside coached the 2012 U.S. Under-18 Select Team this past summer in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“It’s a place these kids grow up in when they’re five- or six-years-old,” said Sue Dougherty, a board member who manages the basic skills program. Dougherty joined the club 17 years ago when her five-year-old daughter and her best friend wanted to learn to figure skate. Her daughter later started WSC’s girl’s hockey team.
Members are lawyers, painters, doctors, teachers, bankers and more. They come from various neighborhoods in the Northwest and nearby, from Oreland, Fort Washington, Blue Bell, the Main Line, Glenside, etc.
“You have all types of people who are all there for the same purpose,” said Dougherty.
In 2004, members organized the WSC Golf Classic to raise funds in order to keep up with the substabtial amount of maintenance required to upkeep the building. This year’s classic was hosted Oct. 1. Including this year’s event, members have netted almost $200,000. The funds have enabled them to make renovations like installing new windows last year, roof and ceiling repairs, dehumidification system, wider front doors and improvements to the rental skate room.
In 2014 they’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Merritton Exchange, a game between WSC and the Merritton Bulldogs from Ontario. The club is about members looking out for members interested in creating relationships, learning a skillful sport, whether it is casual skating, figure skating, synchro or hockey, and growing the community of the club.
“What else can I do in the winter if I’m too short to play basketball?” asked Quill rhetorically.
For more information, visit www.wissskating.com.