Staff Q&A: Bryan Isola

Bryan Isola, manager of Penn's ice rinkPhoto credit: Mark Stehle

Philadelphia boasts five city ice rinks and one beside the Delaware, all created specifically for public skating.

Travel outside the city, and in a 20-mile radius, you’ll find no fewer than seven full-service rinks open for both skating and hockey.

But there’s no place quite like Penn’s ice rink.

Part college rink, part public place, the Class of 1923 Arena is home to Penn and Drexel’s men and women’s ice hockey clubs, nearly 800 novices eager to learn how to skate, hockey teams from four area high schools and several adult leagues and teams—including one comprised entirely of Wharton graduate students. “We’re kind of a hybrid mix,” says rink Manager Bryan Isola.

Isola’s job is a bit of a hybrid mix, too.

As Manager of the rink, he’s responsible for scheduling ice time for all of the student groups—and making sure there’s plenty of time for the general public to hit the ice, too. He also makes sure that the Arena—which opened in 1972, and has been run by Penn’s Business Services division since 1983—keeps humming. Which is no small task.

Spring may be quickly approaching, but Isola says there’s still plenty of time to hit the ice all this month, during public skating hours. PennCard holders get $1 off the admission price of $5.50 ($6.50 on the weekends) and skate rental is just $2.50. At the end of March, the rink will close its doors to skating until September.

Q. Are you a hockey player?
A.
I did play hockey. I played in college for four years and I played one year of pro hockey. I played for four different teams. I started out in Jacksonville, Florida for the Jacksonville Baracudas. I played for Huntsville, Alabama. Then I went to Tupelo, Mississippi, and then I ended up in York, Pa, where I decided to move on. It was fun—it was a nice year to do something different between college and work-life.

Q. Had you played hockey from when you were old enough to stand on skates?
A.
Not quite that long—I started in eighth grade.
My parents never played, never watched it. I had a teacher one year and just decided, I’m going to play hockey and learned the plays and went through high school and got lucky and played at Neumann College down in Delaware County. I played Division III. I played defense. Didn’t score many goals—never really did.

Q. In college, did you have a plan to go pro?
A.
I was a sports management major. I wanted to work for the Flyers. I got offered an internship with the Flyers and I turned it down and chose to go with the local rink instead, because they paid. I did that for about a year-and-a-half and stayed with them and enjoyed it and was about to graduate and then a friend talked me into going to a—he told me it was a hockey tournament—I didn’t realize it was for a league. It was in Florida in May before we graduated.
They did a draft and they ended up drafting me to a team. I was going to go back to grad school, [but] I said I’ll wait a year and had some fun and played.

Q. What is it like balancing the needs of the general public with the needs of the adult leagues and the kiddie, high school and college teams?
A.
That’s our most difficult task because we’re not run by Recreation, we’re Business Services, so our mission is to provide services, but also to do it in a fiscally responsible manner. We kind of float between the Penn discounted rates and also being able to maintain our costs. A majority, I would say 95 percent, of our income comes from outside groups.
Business Services itself has 14 different businesses. We’re a very diverse group. Even though an ice rink has nothing to do with a computer store, or a bookstore, we all still have the same goals and have the opportunity to work together and collaborate to help make the University services that it provides that much better to the students.

Q. What are some of the challenges of working with an older structure?
A.
It has its own nice unique feel. It’s a big arena. It has the feeling of an older rink and we kind of use that to our advantage.
We kind of value that antique look. It wasn’t well-taken care of previously and we have just kind of babied it and have done some things to help clean up the appearance a little bit.
I think the Penn kids really enjoy the way it looks. I know the hockey team does enjoy the larger setting. It kind of has a professional feel to it because it has so many seats—2,500-plus. We’re the second largest in Philadelphia, the third largest after the Spectrum. We’re the largest college facility in Pennsylvania. ...
In the last four years we’ve done a lot to turn the building around. We’ve kind of built the entire business and kind of took it from a very pessimistic state to a very optimistic state.

Q. What do you like about your work?
A.
The customers are very nice. You meet a lot of interesting people. It’s an industry where you’ll meet everybody from doctors to union guys and there’s lots of nice stories about the building.
A lot of our customers have been here for a long period of time and they have stories from the 70s, when the Flyers used to practice in the building. They practiced in the building from the day it was built until about 1980. This was their main practice facility. Then they jumped over to Voorhees.

Q. Do you still get out on the ice?
A.
I do get out there a little bit. I help out a lot with Wharton’s hockey club, do mostly coaching. I don’t play as much. September, October is pretty quiet, but from November throughout the end of February we’re just so busy we don’t have any time to do anything but basically run the building. We have about 23 students and three of us.

Q. What do you do in the summer?
A.
In the summer, we do building maintenance. We have a concrete floor down there. We’ve hosted a comedy show. We also host the Computer Connection show every year. They sell all their computers to the incoming freshman class. They pick them up down here.
Three years ago, we had a floor company that came in. They sanded down basketball floors for Madison Square Garden, so the Knicks’ floor was actually down here and they were actually sanding it and repainting it.

Q. How do you put the ice back?
A.
Well, we do it every year, so we’re actually pretty good at it. You have concrete and underneath there’s a bunch of pipes, and in those pipes in our back mechanical room, there are giant air compressors, which are similar to what you would run air conditioning with. It cools freon and sends the freon through the pipes. The pipes basically cool the concrete slab.
We then lay a very thin layer of water, 1/16 of an inch, down. We have a giant high pressure water hose that has a mixture of white paint in it. So we’ll paint that first 1/16th of an inch completely white and we’ll seal it in with another 1/16th of an inch of just clear water. On top of that, we take the students and ourselves out there and hand-paint the rest.

Q. You must have some dedicated work-study students.
A.
Our students do a lot for us. We’re very lucky—the students at Penn have been incredible. When we’re not here, they’re pretty much managers on duty.
We hire people to be cashiers or skate guards, but there’s also the opportunity to drive the Zamboni, which of course motivates them.

Originally published March 6, 2008

Originally published on March 6, 2008