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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

It was a balmy 86 degrees when I decided to drop by the Desert Ice Castle in Cathedral City.

Built via a public-private partnership in 2011, the rink is at what was once the site of a Coca Cola-bottling plant. On this day, it was a beehive of activity as members of the Desert Blaze hockey program skated on the ice. Overseeing the practice was Jeff Larson.

A 54-year-old native of Minnesota, Larson played collegiate hockey at the University of Minnesota and was an acquaintance of Herb Brooks, a hockey legend who coached the U.S. men’s hockey team to the “Miracle on Ice” gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. He works with a cadre of coaches in the program.

“The owner of the rink approached me and asked if I could help start a hockey program five years ago. Having played since age 6, the game is in my blood, so I signed on,” Larson said. “We started out with some free and open tryouts. We didn’t even have enough equipment for the kids. The rink bought 30 sets of gear, and we got a grant from the National Hockey League Players’ Association for another 30.”

Of course, you can’t play ice hockey without knowing how to skate, and when the Desert Blaze teams began, many of the players had only seen hockey on television—and had never been on ice. Larson called in some favors, and some former Canadian and U.S. players helped get the program off the ground.

“We had about 40 kids raring to go,” said Larson. “We opened up the gate—and 40 kids fell right over. Fortunately, we had some good skating coaches around, and we righted the ship.”

Nowadays, most players have taken skating lessons before joining. The Desert Blaze program includes five teams, set up according to age groups, that travel. The players range in age from 6 to 17, including some female players at the younger levels.

Being a hockey mom or dad means a lot of driving: The Blaze teams play throughout Southern California.

“It takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice on the part of parents,” Larson said. “Parents travel many miles to support the Blaze on the road. It takes a special kind of parent to be a hockey mom or dad, and we are lucky to have them.”

While still somewhat exotic here in the desert, ice hockey is receiving increased support. The Desert Blaze teams have received help, including coaching clinics, from the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. The two NHL teams and the minor-league Ontario Reign also try to schedule game outings for the teams. In fact, several Los Angeles Kings alumni are scheduled to compete in a fundraising golf tournament hosted by the Blaze on Friday, Dec. 2.

“There are quite a few ex-NHL players like Grant Fuhr and Jim Pappin who live in the desert. We reach out to them and they stop by. The kids really enjoy that,” Larson said.

The future looks bright for hockey in the desert. There are rumors that an NHL team may use the Desert Ice Castle as a one- or two-day practice facility in 2017. The St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have stopped by Cathedral City, and at least two NHL team owners have homes here in the desert.

For more information on the Desert Blaze or the Dec. 2 fundraiser, call 760-578-9080, or visit www.desertblazehockey.com.

Published in Sports

There is but one ice rink operating in the Coachella Valley: Cathedral City’s Desert Ice Castle, offering “the coolest fun in the desert,” according to its slogan.

While the Desert Ice Castle is open to the public, it also has a mysterious element to it—including the fact that it’s a main training spot for a potential 2014 Olympic medalist. I wanted to talk to the owner—Anthony Liu, a former Olympic men’s figure-skater and a seven-time Australian champion—about the Desert Ice Castle. But for weeks, he eluded my phone calls and requests to talk.

So at 7 a.m. on one recent Saturday morning, I went to the DIC with my camera, hoping to photograph and talk to Liu. I’d been told that he was back in town briefly between international trips to skating competitions being held in preparation for the Olympics—two of which had been won by his star pupil, Japanese Olympic medal contender Tatsuki Machida. On this morning, he was coaching some advanced skating pupils and was already on the ice when I got there.

Shortly after I started taking pictures, I spotted Liu through my telephoto lens: He was staring right at me, and did not look pleased. I lowered my camera, smiled and nodded across the ice. With a curt nod of his own, Liu skated toward me.

I introduced myself and explained why I was there. He smiled and said: “Please don’t mention me in the article.”

“Don’t mention you?” I replied, quite surprised. “But you own this place.”

Again, he smiled. “Well, you can mention I’m an owner, but please don’t use a picture of me. Thank you.”

He turned away and stepped back onto the ice. With that, the hoped-for photo session and interview came to an end.


On a recent warm winter day, as I followed assistant manager Jennifer Gonzalez (right) into the rink area, I was met by an Arctic air blast. The Ice Castle was indeed living up to its aforementioned slogan.

What brings the most people to this Perez Road facility? “The hockey leagues definitely bring in the most money right now,” said Gonzalez. “We have four travelling teams for the kids (ages 4-17), and an in-house adult league with six teams, one of which is made up entirely of players from the 29 Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat base.

“The public skating is pretty popular, too, along with the birthday-party-room bookings, and it’s particularly busy on the weekends,” Jennifer said. “Friday and Saturday nights, the crowd is mostly younger folks without parents, while Sundays, we get mostly families skating together. And we’re always busiest in the summer, because it’s so cool in here.”

There must be obstacles to keeping the ice in good condition during those steamy desert summer months. “In the summer, it’s very expensive to run the three compressors needed to create and maintain the ice,” Gonzalez concurred. “And another challenge is to manage the condition of the ice, because the figure-skaters need soft ice, while the hockey teams must have hard ice, or the surface gets so chopped up that it’s unusable for figure-skating.”

The DIC is a family business. It’s owned by Liu, and managed by Andrew Luczynski, Liu’s father-in-law. Caroline, Liu’s wife, plays a substantial role as well.

Built on the site of a former Coca-Cola bottling plant, the DIC development effort began in earnest in mid-2010. The management team projected the rink would open in April 2011, but financial and construction challenges pushed back that date to Sept. 9, 2011. During construction, the common belief in the international competitive figure-skating community was that the Desert Ice Castle was built to complement the training capabilities of a Southern California sister facility, the world-renowned Arrowhead Ice Castle, which had been bought by Liu in 2003.

For several decades, the Arrowhead Ice Castle was the picturesque training site of choice for many of the world’s most-serious Olympic figure-skating contenders, as well as their coaches, including the legendary Frank Carroll. The reigning 2010 Olympic men’s figure-skating champion Evan Lysacek had trained there, as had Michelle Kwan, Robin Cousins, Nicole Bobek, Surya Bonaly and Chen Lu. The list goes on.

When the DIC opened, Frank Carroll (who has a home in Palm Springs) committed to using the new rink as his training base. But in May 2013, an announcement came that he was returning to his former host rink, the Toyota Sports Center, in El Segundo. “Our figure-skating department is thrilled to have the return of this elite level of training,” said Juliette Harton, the director of skating at the Toyota Center, in a press release issued at the time. “Mr. Carroll brings strong, respected leadership to a superb staff deep with Olympic, world and national level coaches.”

That development was followed by another surprising move, made this past August: Liu closed the beloved Arrowhead rink. The announcement shocked the competitive figure-skating community. Liu cited the inability to get enough revenue from the community-participant activities such as hockey leagues and public sessions, and invited all of the coaches and athletes still working there to follow him to his new rink in Cathedral City. It’s unclear how many have.

Today, when you walk into the DIC foyer, you are confronted immediately by the wall of competitive figure-skating coaches who work there—headed up by Frank Carroll. Given Carroll’s publicized departure, one wonders why his photo still leads off the coaching display.

So who has replaced Carroll as the Ice Castle’s most-accomplished coach? It’s none other than Liu himself, thanks in part to his tutelage of Tatsuki Machida, who trained often at the DIC in 2013.

But no photo of Mr. Liu can be found on the coaching wall of fame—or anywhere else I saw at the DIC, for that matter.

Why does Anthony Liu insist on keeping such a low public profile, when promoting his professional stature could benefit his Desert Ice Castle endeavor? And what will happen to the stature of Liu and the Desert Ice Castle if Tatsuki Machida wins an Olympic medal, with the whole world watching?

Stay tuned.

Published in Features