The rink is packed full of skaters on a crisp, cool day as the sound of skate blades echo throughout the neighborhood of Lower Chester Park. The history behind the rink lies within the name.
Above the benches at the hockey rink, located on Fifteenth Avenue East, a sign reads “Rip Williams Memorial Rink.” Opening in 1915, the rink was later dedicated to hockey player and coach Rip Williams in 1989. Rip, born and raised in Duluth, was the father of seven children, including the first American brothers to play in the National Hockey League (NHL), Tommy and Butch Williams.
The Williams family grew up in a house located next to the ice rink. Rip started skating at the rink when he was only six years old. Growing up in a time where hockey had few organized teams, Rip progressed through the ranks and made it all the way to one level below the NHL. After retiring as a player, Rip devoted a large amount of his time to coaching kids at the rink, including his own children.
“They say it takes about 10,000 hours to become really good at something, and I spent every one of those 10,000 hours over there,” Butch said.
Three sheets of ice make up the complex: a pleasure rink for free skating, a smaller, boarded rink for young children, and a larger, boarded rink for open hockey. There is also a warming house on-site where people can rent skates and helmets, buy snacks and warm up from the cold. That luxury wasn't available during Butch's childhood.
“We just had a couple of wooden shacks over there with pot belly stoves in them that we would shovel coal into, and that’s what would provide the heat,” Butch said.
The Lower Chester Park community eventually decided to build a facility that would take the place of the wooden shacks. The kids who played at the rink even got involved by hauling blocks of concrete. Money was raised through scrap drives, outdoor dances and auctions. Now, the park belongs to the city, but the facilities have been leased to Friends of the Park, a community organization committed to supporting local parks.
Many other community rinks are scattered throughout the city. Thomas Wheeler, who grew up in Congdon Park, began his hockey career at the Congdon rink when he was just four years old. He eventually played for Duluth East High School, Hamilton College in New York, and professionally in Europe for four years. Wheeler still remembers the days when he played at the city’s outdoor rinks as a child.
“I took my skates and stick to school every day,” Wheeler said. “You go to school and at three o’clock, the bell rang, and over to the rink you go.”
Wheeler said almost every neighborhood had its own rink where the area children would gather to play hockey. There were rinks in Lower Chester, Portland, Congdon, Woodland, Glen Avon, Duluth Heights, Park Point and several other neighborhoods. Wheeler recalled that no games were organized by teams or coaches and that there was usually no game plan.
“You just go down to the rink, and somebody would throw a puck out there, and you’d figure out how the game went,” Wheeler said.
Lower Chester Park has produced many great hockey players, as many young children grew up playing on the rink. Stan Gilbertson, Ben Wolfe, and Tommy and Butch Williams all grew up in Lower Chester and eventually played in the NHL at one point in their lives. Even Duluth East High School's hockey coach, Mike Randolph, grew up and played hockey at Lower Chester.
A few years ago, the entire Lower Chester Park complex was set to be demolished in order to build a new greenhouse. When residents of Lower Chester heard that the rink was in danger, they took action and started a petition to save the rink from being destroyed. They also started a volunteer sign up to help take care of the facilities.
For decades, kids and adults of all ages have been skating at Rip Williams Memorial Rink. It is a piece of history in the neighborhood of Lower Chester Park that continues to grow with each pair of skates that touch the ice.
“He spent so many years devoting his life to working with kids," Butch said. "He literally coached thousands of kids at this rink, and he was never in it for himself."