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Jason Rokosh and Sophie Rokosh, four, try out Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works skating path. Malls and other commercial spaces are using skating rinks to get Canadians off the couch.JENNIFER ROBERTS

In the race to get an edge on the competition, malls and other commercial spaces are using skating rinks to lure customers off the couch, and they're finding these versatile spaces are useful for more than just laps around the ice.

"There's something really Canadian about the ice," says Anthony Westenberg, public relations manager at Toronto's Evergreen Brick Works. "Everybody remembers the first time lacing up, and we wanted to bring it back and remind people of it and celebrate it."

The Brick Works, a former industrial site turned non-profit market and community centre located in heart of the city, installed an outdoor skating rink in 2010 to entice people to the unique facility. In addition to free public skating, the rink hosts school groups most weekdays throughout the winter, trying to break the ice with city kids who never get a chance to skate.

"One of my colleagues on the education side of things told me, within three kilometres of the Brick Works there are 10,000 kids with no backyard," Mr. Westenberg says. "So we want this to become their backyard."

The rink has become a draw for families, which also benefits vendors at the weekly farmer's market, Mr. Westenberg adds.

"We've had some parents remark that they've come down here because their kids asked them to," he said.

West Edmonton Mall has long known about the lure of the rink. The behemoth shopping complex is considered the gold standard when it comes to malls serving as playgrounds, boasting a water park, roller coaster and mini-golf course. The WEM's Ice Palace skating rink, an NHL-sized indoor facility, was installed in 1983, and it's been an integral part of the mall ever since, said Stacey Claffey, WEM's general manager.

"It's the heart of the centre, the meeting place, a locale for way-finding because we are really large," Ms. Claffey says. "We have some [families] that come out every year on Christmas Eve and they skate at the Ice Palace, it's become tradition for them. Some seniors have been skating with us in excess of 10 years, and we know them by name."

WEM's Ice Palace runs year-round and charges a fee for skaters: $7.95 for adults and $5.95 for seniors and children (for a day pass). But beyond the income generated from skating fees, the Ice Palace's greater utility comes as an event space. The Ice Palace is highly sought-after as a venue for hockey, ringette and figure skating tournaments, because the mall offers a more pleasant experience than traditional rinks, Ms. Claffey says.

"In comparison to a traditional hockey rink, there's something else to do," she said. "If you travel for hockey tournaments, you're kind of stuck in that rink, there isn't an opportunity to make it a family vacation experience. That's what we want the families to feel, to be able to enjoy the other attractions and create family memories."

The Ice Palace easily turns into an event venue with removable flooring put over the ice. Over the years, WEM has hosted concerts, pep rallies, autograph signings and fan festivals. One popular event brought in the actors from the blockbuster Twilight films. A recent Keith Urban concert drew 15,000 fans, and this year's Chinese New Year Lunar Festival drew 20,000 celebrants.

"We want to drive traffic to the shopping centre so that they will go in and seek retailers and start to shop after they've experienced the celebrity appearances or other events we're hosting," Ms. Claffey said.

Public skating and events at the Ice Palace draw about 200,000 people a year to the WEM, according to Ms. Claffey. It's this kind of success at that has prompted the mall's owners, Triple Five Group, to plan a skating rink at its newest shopping megamall venture, the American Dream Meadowlands complex in New Jersey. The massive five-story development, built on the site of the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, will also feature an amusement park and indoor ski hill, and when completed in 2013 will be one of the largest malls on the continent.

Dan Jasper, vice-president of public relations for The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., (which is also owned by Triple Five), says that a skating rink will be one of the many attractions at the American Dream development designed to bring in the crowds. Like the Ice Palace at WEM, American Dream's facility will be multi-functional and used for events as well.

"[The attractions]do act as a magnet to get good folks into the building," Mr. Jasper said. "People come for the attractions and they also spend money, on shopping and dining and doing other things."

Ms. Claffey says the WEM's indoor rink has benefitted from the unseasonably warm weather in Edmonton this year because many outdoor rinks in the city didn't open. But at Evergreen Brick Works, the warm winter weather has made maintenance on its outdoor rink a bit more challenging than usual.

There is a cooling system underneath the Brick Works rink that keeps the ice useable when the temperature creeps above freezing. Shah Mohamed, who maintains the rink at Brick Works, says a lot of rain raises the level of the ice, which can result in slushiness. As well, utility costs have been higher this year because the cooling system had to work harder. (In a bit of environmental ingenuity, the warmth pulled off the rink is redirected to help heat two buildings on the Brick Works site.) Some of the costs are off-set because a portion of the Brick Works' winter programming is sponsored by wireless provider Fido this year, Mr. Westenberg said. (The $400,000 it cost to build the rink came from a mix of public funding, private and corporate donations.) As well, the Brick Works would be open to a company sponsoring the rink in the future.

"We're in our second year, so we're still growing and trying to figure our way out," he said.

Sponsorship is something the Shops at Don Mills would like to see happen with its "Skating Oval," a free outdoor rink Cadillac Fairview built in 2009. The Toronto complex bills itself as Ontario's first "open air" shopping centre, with stores and restaurants surrounding a "town square" and residential developments planned for the surrounding area.

Lauren Genz, marketing manager for the Shops at Don Mills, says the Skating Oval sets the complex apart from other malls and keeps it competitive by offering just a little more to its customers.

"Our slogan is 'a breath of fresh air,' and not every mall can offer a skating rink," she said.

While the Cadillac Fairview mall decided last week to shut down its rink for the season because it's been unseasonably warm, Ms. Genz says the costs of keeping it going had been outweighed by the benefits of the draw to the community.

"It gets families together," she said. "People can put down their cellphones and Nintendo and participate in an activity together."

Icy attractions

Cold-weather attractions have popped up across the globe, even in places where the temperature never dips below zero.

  • North Ridge Mall, Salinas, Calif.This SoCal shopping centre opened its first “Winter Village” this past holiday season, the centrepiece of which was a new skating rink.
  • SM Mall of Asia, Pasay City, Philippines: An Olympic-sized skating rink is one highlight of this massive shopping complex, which also features a concert venue, a 76-lane bowling alley and the largest Ferris wheel in the Philippines.
  • Dragon Center, Kowloon, Hong Kong: Billed as the largest in Hong Kong, the ice rink in the nine-storey Dragon Center Mall is most notable for the fact that a roller coaster runs through it.
  • Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Housed inside one of the biggest malls in the world is an indoor ski resort called Ski Dubai. It features 22,500 square metres of skiing, including a quarter pipe for snowboarders, a “black” run and a ski lift. There are also tobagganing hills, an ice cavern and a recently added colony of penguins.
  • Alqasr Mall, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Developer Al Othaim Investment and Real Estate Development Co. is planning a “snow village” inside a new mall in Riyadh, scheduled to be open later this year in the Saudi capital.