The Big Chill

Right now, it’s 40 degrees in Anchorage, Alaska.

And minus-5 in Chicago.

Yeah, that’s the kind of winter we’re having this year.

As I continue to get back in the swing of things with this blog, I thought I’d delve once again into the reservoir of my storytelling past and share with you a tale from my book that’s well-suited for this oh-so-frigid weather.

So, if you thought the New Year’s Day Blackhawks game at Wrigley Field was the most unique event involving an ice rink in Illinois that you’d ever heard of, well, you might want to think again. Because, six years ago when I was a newspaper columnist at The Daily Times in little Ottawa, Ill., I managed to dig up the following gem.

With a snow shovel, of course.

The Big Chill


Feb. 18, 2003

When it came to the most jumpin’ joints around during the 1940s and ’50s, you’d have been hard-pressed to find – not just in La Salle County, but the entire state of Illinois –- any venue flashing more verve than Ottawa Township High School’s Kingman Gym.

Back in those days when the Home of Ottawa Pirates wasn’t playing host to an assortment of high school dances and functions – not to mention legendary coach Gil Love’s fabled OTHS basketball squads – it was busy serving as a showcase for a variety of national traveling acts.

The original Harlem Globetrotters, for one, once hit the Kingman hardwood during the 1946-47 school year. That same season, Ottawans also reveled in watching other black barnstorming basketball teams, such as the House of David, the Hawaiian – yes, Hawaiian – All-Stars and Kansas City All-Stars tangle at Kingman.. Quite interestingly, in December of ’46 – probably around the time that they traveled to Ottawa – the Kansas City Stars listed none other than Jesse Owens on their roster, meaning that the Olympic track and field legend might have shot hops in The River City that year.

Doing shooting of an entirely different sort in Kingman during the 1953-54 school year was the “Singing Cowboy” – old Gene Autry, himself – who galloped into the venerable gymnasium with his traveling rodeo for a live show.

As splendid as those spectacles were, though, there was not a one that left its mark quite like the time that Kingman Gym welcomed the unlikeliest guest of all.

“The Ice Capades in Kingman,” former Ottawa Township High School teacher and boys basketball coach Dean Riley recently said with a laugh. “No one has mentioned that in 30 years.”

Probably because the old gym is still trying to forget.

Sometime during the late 1950s – memories of exact dates have fuzzed in the decades since – a group of Ottawans conjured up the notion of bringing the “Greatest Show on Ice” to town. And, for many, the thought of the glamorous Ice Capades pirouetting its way into off-the-beaten path Ottawa was simply a dream come true.

“Oh, I was tickled,” 73-year-old Earl Fribbs, a longtime fan of the Ice Capades, said about hearing the show would make a local appearance. “I didn’t believe it, that’s for sure. They’d come to Joliet, Peoria, Chicago for shows.

“But never to Ottawa.”

Most likely because larger cities such as Chicago and Joliet had arenas with, you know, actual ice rinks in them. Ottawa, on the other hand, could offer only the floor of Kingman Gym.

The recently-renovated, gleaming hardwood floor of Kingman Gym.

Unswayed by that little technicality, OTHS – with assurance from the Ice Capades that all would go well – proceeded with organizing the vent. The proper safeguards were taken as special, waterproofed material was placed over the gym floor, and intermittent spraying and freezing continued until the spacious Kingman was fit for a penguin.

The crowds then cam, the skaters whirled, danced and leapt barricades, and everyone acclaimed the performance.

“They put on a good show,” Fribbs recalled.

Those handing out the accolades included even the skeptics, because when the floor’s protective barrier was removed following the production, Kingman’s surface was just as shiningly beautiful as before.

Yes, everything had gone as smooth as ice.

Or not.

A couple days after the event, disaster struck as Kingman’s floor began – and continued – to buckle and bend. When it finally ceased, more than half of the recently-finished hardwood had been warped to some degree.

“That show ruined the darn floor,” Riley said. “It buckled up so bad near the northwest corner of the gym by the cafeteria, that you couldn’t even open that door. The floor must have popped up a foot.”

For Riley, than an assistant basketball coach under Gil Love, the debacle proved particularly troublesome as the Ice Capades took place during the hoops season. Ultimately, though, the mishap proved even more vexing for the Pirates’ opponents.

“It was several years before we got a new floor after the damage,” Riley said. “And it just added to the Kingman mystique. One area on the east end of the floor, the coaches from other schools would hate it because the ball would bounce about halfway back up when you dribbled it. And we knew where those boards were.

“A lot of other teams hated playing in that gym.”

Luckily for the school’s taxpayers, they didn’t have to hate paying for the gym, as well. As it turned out, the Ice Capades’ insurance ended up footing the bill for the aftermath of the one event in Ottawa certain to never have an encore.

“I think there’d be a little resistance against something like that now,” Riley said with a laugh.

“Probably more than a little.”

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