For Monroe Griffin, who turns 5 next week, the second-most memorable part of trips to the Kraken Community Iceplex this past year was getting though her weekly skating lessons without falling.

But she’ll remember most that the Iceplex was where she met her “best friend from forever” Ruby, who recently immigrated with her family from China.

Ruby, Monroe and dozens of children ages 3 to 5 took part in an introductory skating partnership between the Kraken’s One Roof Foundation philanthropic arm and Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWa), a nonprofit providing free and low-cost bilingual and bicultural child care and preschool for young children from refugee, immigrant and lower-income families. 

The Iceplex and its three community rinks celebrated the $90 million facility’s first anniversary Friday. Of the more than 1 million people to have passed through its doors the first year, many came to skate or learn how.

And few partnerships fulfilled the facility’s stated community objectives more so than the one with ReWa, which brought together children from conflict-plagued countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, with others newcomers to the United States or those already from here but living under reduced socioeconomic means.

“When she first started, she was kind of nervous, and it was a little bit scary,” Monroe’s mother Kaisha, a Columbia City resident who grew up in the San Juan Islands, said of the weekly skating classes in which toddlers initially used orange cones for balance. “But then it felt good for her to not have to use the cone anymore.”

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A smiling Monroe agreed with her.

“My favorite part was not having to hold on to anything,” she said, proudly.

By the time the 32-week pilot program ended last spring, most of the youngsters were not only skating but grasping sticks, handling pucks and doing other basics of hockey. When the program resumes in October, graduates of the initial season will move to more advanced skating and hockey lessons in the second of a three-year program.

“This was something that really fit for me,” said Susan Lee, director of ReWa’s early learning center, whose own family immigrated from China. “I came over when I was 5 just like some of the little ones at our school. And I remember feeling the disconnect and the privilege, or lack of privilege. And so, my personal vision and mission is to make sure our families feel empowered. That they’re part of the community and not any less. I felt the less when I was a kid, as a new immigrant.”

The 30-minute skating lessons offer a way for those from diverse backgrounds to socialize in a relaxed environment. The team provides the children and volunteer parent chaperones luxury bus transportation between the Iceplex and three ReWa facility locations in Lake City, Beacon Hill and South Seattle, as well as designated rink time with coaches. Parents such as Monroe’s mother — a frequent ReWa volunteer chaperone for the skating sessions — are encouraged to accompany them to the Iceplex whenever possible.

“It’s really about building social and emotional skills,” Lee said. “It’s about bonding.”

Kyle Boyd, the Kraken’s community development director, said more than 3,000 people ages 3 to 81 took part in free Learn to Skate programs at the Iceplex — the most of any Washington facility, fifth-most in the country and the nation’s largest total for a newly offered program. Another 1,000 or so people took Learn to Play hockey lessons, and more than 50,000 attended open public skates.

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The Kraken had hoped the Iceplex, initially projected to cost $80 million in private team funding, would alleviate pent-up regional demand for more indoor ice time for hockey leagues, figure skating, curling and other events. Also, that it would introduce new communities to hockey and help the fledgling NHL team build grassroots support by allowing fans to see practices for free and skate on the same ice as players.

It took 18 months to build the facility amid pandemic slowdowns. It opened last September for Kraken training camp and was finalized over the winter for an additional $10 million cost.

The 32 Bar & Grill restaurant with its 17 TV screens and capacity for 250 patrons didn’t open until early November due to shipping delays of remaining furniture and other materials.

In all, despite pandemic hurdles, the Iceplex has been the site of more than 45 Kraken practices, 250 events and some 15 tournaments. More than 120 adult recreational teams play Kraken Hockey League games at the facility, and even Team USA junior figure skater Lucas Broussard, 16, trains out of it.

“I think we’ve definitely exceeded some of our early goals, especially around public skates,” Boyd said. “I know some of the early questions from a (COVID-19) public skating perspective was we weren’t sure whether people were going to come out or feel comfortable in that environment. But, I mean, we’ve had a ton of public skates that were absolutely packed to the max.”

Chad Goodwin, director of the Kraken’s skating academy, said the facility’s location helped.

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“It’s really accessible, it’s right at Northgate, it’s got public transit,” said Goodwin, a Canadian native who ran public skating programs for the Vegas Golden Knights in their first four years of NHL existence. “But it’s also a great facility where you can spend time as a family. You can come in, sit, get a coffee, read a book, eat at the restaurant. So it’s something everybody can enjoy whether you’re the older sibling, the younger sibling or the parent. You can come in and check it out, whether you’re going to get on the ice or not.”

Goodwin added: “I also feel like we have a team of good coaches that are making skating fun. The goal at the very beginning was to make KCI a fun place.”

When it came to the ReWa partnership, teaching several young children from different countries who barely spoke English and hadn’t seen ice or skates presented a different coaching challenge.

“It made me a better instructor and a better director,” Goodwin said. “Our first class, we had 57 kids that were 3 and 4, and many didn’t speak English. We all had masks on, so communication was tough. But at the end of the season, out of the 57 kids I think about 55 of them would jump on the ice and skate and have fun. Maybe for a couple of them, it wasn’t their sport. But the rest were just excited to be at the facility.”

As for Monroe Griffin, she’s excited to return for her second season of lessons. Her mother said heading to the Iceplex with a busload of 20 other children has given her daughter “confidence.”

“She was able to forge new relationships with all these other kids,” she said. “And you hope they’ll someday be a leader amongst their peers. I think even her body mechanics are better than I’d expect. Because she’s just gotten to do those things faster. She’s practiced something different than walking and climbing.”