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With Bruins idled, fans take to FleetCenter ice

With no hockey and the FleetCenter ice bereft of blades, officials have thrown open the doors to public skating at the arena, giving Ray Bourque worshipers and Michelle Kwan wannabes a chance to glide on hallowed ice.

Around New England, Bruins fans and skaters who previously had seen the ice only on television rearranged their lives to lace up skates at the Fleet. They came from New Hampshire and across Massachusetts. Many said they called in sick or took children out of school.

"It's such a cool experience, seeing what the Bruins see when they play," said 13-year-old Amy Sabean, who had a day off from school in Danvers.

The Mathieson family took three children out of school and drove from Brookline, N.H., to cross the blue line and the yellow-and-black Bruins logo at center ice.

"She loves the Bruins," said Denise Mathieson, pointing out her 8-year-old daughter, Jordan, clad head to toe in hockey gear. A plastic mouth guard dangled from her helmet.

Yesterday afternoon, families took turns lying across the Bruins logo at center ice and snapping photos of each other. Couples circled hand in hand, some gazing at the Stanley Cup banners flying overhead. Along with the smell of skaters' french fries, a certain sense of reverence drifted through the chilly air.

"Oh, the players . . . " Charles Spaniak, said in a half-whisper as he looked around the arena. He took the day off from work, picked up a fellow Bruins fan in Peabody, and spent yesterday afternoon at the FleetCenter, which he affectionately calls "the Gahhden" after the arena's predecessor. "I've watched them since I was a little kid: Bourque, Neely."

Krzysztof Czarnecki, Spaniak's friend from Peabody, stood frozen on the ice outside the penalty box, staring up into the stands.

"It's so awesome looking out instead of looking in," Czarnecki said. "I feel like a little kid."

Public skating sessions will continue for one more week, with open skating today from 1-6 p.m. Admission is $5, and participants must bring their own skates. Children 2 and under will be admitted free. Additional sessions will be held Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Those sessions will cost $10. A one-hour hockey stick practice session will be held at 11 a.m. on Dec. 21, with a charge of $15 per skater.

FleetCenter president Richard Krezwick said he and other officials dreamed up the idea of public skating about two weeks ago, when they considered canceling the arena's traditional round of holiday skating parties since ice had not been prepared due to the National Hockey League players lockout. Instead, they decided to make ice and invite the public to offset some of the cost.

"With the open dates in our calendar, we thought it would be a great opportunity to give people access," Krezwick said.

It takes 48 hours to pour and freeze the 12,000 gallons of water to make the 1- to 1-inch thick ice sheet. Utility bills alone for ice maintenance can top $50,000 a month, Krezwick said.

Arena officials say they'll pick up enough to pay part of the cost of maintaining the ice during the holiday season. At sessions held over the weekend, about 1,000 people took to the ice.

"It's priceless, and that's exactly why we did it," said Krezwick, who is also executive vice president of the Bruins. "There's almost an irony to it that the time when your favorite team isn't playing is when you can get closest to them."

The rink was also opened to the public for skating in First Night festivities for New Year's 2002.

For pick-up hockey aficionado and die-hard Bruins fan Shawn Sullivan, the public skating sessions provided a perfect occasion to surprise his girlfriend. After lunch at a sub shop in Bellingham, where he lives, 23-year-old Sullivan whisked Chelsey Daniels into Boston. The best part, Daniels said, was entering the rink the way the Bruins normally would.

"It's unbelievable to actually come down the side where they come in," gushed Daniels, 20, clearly impressed as she glided with Sullivan around the rink to the strains of U2's song, "In the Name of Love."

But the FleetCenter ice is not all about hockey. It was here that Michelle Kwan glided to her fourth straight US Figure Skating Championship in 2001. More than one skater looped the ice yesterday performing single toe loops, spirals, and spins.

Nearly four decades had passed since the Rev. Carol Flett skated competitively in high school, so she stuck with the basics: backward and forward, near center ice.

"At 57, you don't want to fall," quipped the Episcopalian minister from Weston. "I think it's really nice that they've done this. When else do you get a chance to skate on the Bruins' ice?"

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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