At Buffalo's newest outdoor rink, Canalside, teenage couples skated hand in hand, while a few stumbling toddlers nearly pulled their parents down. From a pedestrian bridge above the ice, spectators drank Flying Bison beer and bit into hot sandwiches from nearby food trucks. Stereos pumped Bob Marley, although the tropical beat belied the 20-degree temperatures. All around the double-sized rink, market vendors under striped awnings sold jewelry, hockey sticks and sweatshirts printed with “We Made Snow Famous” and “Buffalonians Never Say Die.” This winter, Buffalo is fully embracing its cold weather. Canalside (canalsidebuffalo.com), covering 21 acres and with 33,000 square feet of ice, is one of three downtown ice rinks that have recently opened in this Rust Belt comeback city. Along with new craft breweries, food trucks and winter festivals, ice is among the new waterfront attractions that have residents and visitors enjoying the cold. Nearly 30,000 people skated at Canalside in the month after its splashy Dec. 18 opening, officials said. Canalside visitors, who’ve come from as far away as Switzerland and Japan, can also rent what are believed to be the country's first ice bikes, inspired by recumbent Chinese machines and made locally with blades instead of front wheels.
This is not what my husband and I were expecting a few months earlier, when we had just moved to Buffalo. With the rosy September light glinting off downtown’s cluster of handsome buildings, we took a sunset cruise on Lake Erie and asked a lifelong Buffalonian what locals did in winter. “Uh, watch the N.F.L.?” she offered. “We just kind of hunker down.” Now the Canalside ice sits where the Erie Canal here once was, and where the Buffalo Sabres' old hockey arena, Memorial Auditorium, stood from 1939 to 2009. Tim Tielman, executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, helped push for the unique placement. “You're skating on the same path as so much of Buffalo history, so much of American history,” he said. Across from Canalside is HarborCenter (harborcenter.com), a more than $200 million project financed by the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula. With two rinks and an N.H.L.-caliber training center — plus a skyway to the Sabres’ current arena — hockey is HarborCenter’s big attraction. The buzzing (716) Food and Sport (716foodandsport.com) allows people to watch games on a 38-foot screen. The complex will soon fill in up to 10,000 square feet of street-level retail space and be topped with a 205-room Marriott later this year.
A 10-minute walk from HarborCenter to an industrial area along the Buffalo River takes you to RiverWorks (buffaloriverworks.com). A half-dozen 100-foot silos painted like a Labatt Blue six-pack announces that this old grain elevator has a new gig. It now holds 30,000 square feet of ice under an open-air pavilion. The year-old Buffalo Curling Club (buffalocurlingclub.org), which my husband and I joined with two friends at a combined cost of $440, has attracted nearly 500 people to slide heavy stones down the ice there weekly. Pond hockey was also scheduled. By summer RiverWorks plans to add a restaurant, three bars, a beer garden, brewery and distillery, and the complex will host sports like roller hockey and box lacrosse. But it is the cold-weather offerings that excite Doug Swift, a partner. “Buffalo hasn’t had a lot of outdoor winter experience, particularly on the waterfront, and people seem to enjoy bundling up and getting out there rather than sitting on their couches now,” he said. “Buffalo is a winter town, and we need to embrace it. It's defined our image in a negative way for so many years, and I think we can turn that around to make it a positive.” Festivals are bringing people out, too. In early January, Canalside and HarborCenter co-hosted their first Winterfest. One mile away, in the redeveloped warehouse district of Larkinville (larkinsquare.com), businesses held an inaugural Ice Festival at the end of January celebrating what organizers called “our newfound love of ice.” Both festivals included food trucks, in addition to ice bars and sculptures. Larkinville's offerings were set up in front of Flying Bison Brewing Co., which moved its craft brewery and rugged-industrial taproom to this up-and-coming area last fall. Among the new cold-weather fans is the Rev. William Weiksnar, known as Father Jud, a Buffalo native who recently returned to his hometown after 27 years. When the Franciscan friar was growing up, indoor rinks were king, he said. Now he’s been skating almost daily at Canalside, even in his brown robe. “Buffalo's great in the summer, but there's something to look forward to in winter now, too,” he said. And post-skate, the friar said, he is partial to Flying Bison beer.