Another hockey season has begun, but Frank DiCristina has never seen the Southwest Ice Arena in Crestwood so busy.
These days, beginners skate and hockey classes are full, groups have requested the ice rink stay open later — occasionally until 1 a.m. so adults can play — and employees sometimes turn hopeful skaters away because all the ice is booked.
"They've really expanded in numbers to the point where I don't have much more ice for them," said DiCristina, the facility's owner and president who started working at the rink in 1985. "We're pretty well tapped out."
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And with the 2014 Winter Olympics approaching in February, rinks expect another wave of new skaters. After professional figure skaters compete on the international stage, owners and operators of local rinks say they always see an influx of skating novices gliding through the doors.
The demand for ice time is so high that some Chicago parents said they recently waited up to eight hours in line to sign up their children for skating classes at the McFetridge Sports Center on the city's Northwest Side. Adult hockey teams pay to play past midnight at rinks from Crestwood to Gurnee, often the only time available.
A few local rinks are also closed for renovations, forcing hockey players and figure skaters to scramble and find ice elsewhere.
"We're in this great, almost perfect storm," said Bob Veller, superintendent of ice arenas for the Rolling Meadows Park District. "For Chicago, you've got a lot of good hockey and skating right now, which is going to drive more kids to be interested in the sport."
Over the last five years, the number of hockey players in Illinois has grown by nearly 26 percent, from 21,954 to 27,638, according to USA Hockey Inc., the governing body for the sport.
Now, with so many more people interested in skating, classes and teams have been added and ice time is booked as it hasn't been in years, they said.
When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup three years ago, youth hockey exploded in north suburban Niles, leading the Park District to build a second rink in 2011.
But the extra sheet was not enough. Marty Stankowicz, general manager and hockey director for the venue, said he has had a waiting list of three outside groups and several individuals wanting to use the rinks at the IceLand Skate Complex.
"I'm booked from 6 a.m. to midnight every day until March," Stankowicz said. "Trying to find prime time ice here is difficult. It does open up once in a while when someone cancels, but it's hard."
Ice rates vary depending on the time and location, and whether the venue is public or privately owned, but some places said they charge $300 per hour.
The popular Ridgeland Common in west suburban Oak Park is closed for expansion but will open next year as a year-round facility. In the meantime, the rink is running a small number of programs at ice venues in Franklin Park and Bensenville.
So many people are signing up for the Maulers travel hockey team, the Gurnee-based organization now uses two venues to practice, said Rodger Sykes, the organization's travel hockey director.
"It has posed some unique challenges but it's not hard," said Sykes, of the two locations. "Given the alternative of not being able to have as many teams and as many kids playing the game, I think families are willing to make that compromise."
Rosemont leaders decided to build a recreational outdoor ice rink in its entertainment district after seeing the popularity of the one in Millennium Park.
But the village has been fielding requests from youth and adult hockey leagues desperate for ice. Officials are considering selling slots toward the end of February, when the number of recreational ice skaters typically dwindles, said Mayor Brad Stephens.
Hockey player Marc Shellist, 48, said he doesn't mind that his games wrap up after midnight because he just wants to play.