On March 16, 2020, when the first shutdown was announced in the Bay Area, I panicked. With the sudden realization that my two young kids wouldn’t be able to get back to the school playground for days (10 months later, they still haven’t set foot there), I was mostly worried about their physical activity. So I donned a mask, ignored family pleas to load up on toilet paper, and headed to the nearest sports store to buy some balls.

I’d only ever seen Berkeley’s Sports Basement from the outside. It’s hard to miss the giant building on Milvia Street; beyond the sleek blue lines, curved corners, and prominent Art Deco architecture, the most striking thing is the “Iceland” sign over the entrance.

Sports Basement, 2727 Milvia St, Berkeley, California

Sports Basement, 2727 Milvia St, Berkeley, California

Andrew Chamings

Berkeley’s Iceland was an institution — a teen hangout, a leading Bay Area sports venue and one of the only Olympic-sized ice rinks in California for 67 years. The giant building welcomed families, flirting teens and gold medalists until its closure in 2007.

Since 2014, it’s been a Sports Basement, though thankfully, much of the historic original interior is still in place, and it’s worth a visit even if you aren’t panic-buying balls for your kids.

As you walk into the massive space, the original refurbished backlit scorecard looms over aisles of sporting goods. Years prior, it kept score of hockey games, instructed recreational skaters when it was “trio only” time, and told the gents when to leave the ice.

Sports Basement, 2727 Milvia St, Berkeley, California

Sports Basement, 2727 Milvia St, Berkeley, California

Andrew Chamings

The salvaged artifacts only hint at how important the site — with a rink that’s now designated a Berkeley Landmark — was to the city.

“It’s kind of a sad thing,” skate coach Tony Howard said at the time of its closure. “It’s got a lot of history to it, this rink.”

Howard remembered that the first time he walked through the entrance in the ‘50s, he saw couples were ice dancing, so naturally, he strapped on skates and glided with them. It was the first of countless visits.

The rink opened to much fanfare on a Friday night, Nov. 1, 1940. Three-time Olympic champion and Hollywood actress Sonja Henie put on a show as an orchestra played to 4000 visitors. 

Built by W. A. Bechtel in 1939, the building was modeled after the grand old European skating rinks.

Iceland's Zamboni machine, circa 1952

Iceland’s Zamboni machine, circa 1952

Archival / Unknown

In 1952, Frank Zamboni, the inventor of the iconic ice resurfacer, drove one of his Model C machines 450 miles up the coast from the Paramount Island ice rink in Los Angeles to Iceland to show off his new design.

The story goes that his publicity stunt took a turn when his key fell out of the steering wheel, he lost control and veered off into the oleander bushes on the highway median to the confusion of passing motorists. Thankfully, Zamboni managed to get the key back into the shaft and proceeded onward to deliver the machine to the Berkeley ice.

Interestingly, before the Zamboni machine was even invented, giant squeegees (which were invented in Oakland in 1936) were used to smooth the ice, as seen in this photo from the Berkeley Gazette in 1945. (The smoothing task was turned over to women skaters during the war.)

Berkeley Daily Gazette, 1945

Berkeley Daily Gazette, 1945

Berkeley Daily Gazette

Iceland hosted the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships three times, served as the training rink for Olympic gold medal winners Peggy Fleming, Brian Boitano and Kristi Yamaguchi, and also hosted the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. The California Golden Seals and 1994 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team similarly used the ice.

But it had even more inherent value than that, as Berkeley’s own John Corten wrote in 2012:

“Like many Berkeley natives, I learned to skate at Iceland as a child. As an adult I worked there for several years, learned to play hockey there, learned to drive a Zamboni there (which still looks great on a resume), and, most importantly, I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had.”

Changes in state and environmental safety codes rendered the rink’s old refrigeration system, that used ammonia, dangerous and economically unfeasible to replace.

After a failed campaign to save the institution, it closed its doors.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said at the time that the city worked with the owners to find a way to keep the rink open, trying everything from city loans to converting the business to a nonprofit organization. “We did everything to keep it alive,” Bates said. “I think the times may have changed.”
Sports Basement bought the Milvia Street property for $6 million in 2010, becoming the sixth location for the Bay Area sporting equipment chain that started in San Francisco in 1998.

The 70,000-square-foot building underwent a seismic upgrade, and got a new roof and new walls on the two sides of the building. But the iconic signage was preserved, including the faded Iceland sign on the interior, now draped over the checkouts.

Sports Basement, 2727 Milvia St, Berkeley, California

Sports Basement, 2727 Milvia St, Berkeley, California

Andrew Chamings

As a tribute, the floor concrete was poured in a configuration similar to the sections of an ice hockey rink, and scores in the concrete are marked where the goal boxes would have sat.

Ice has always been a novelty in California, so it’s no surprise that the unique site forged such happy memories for its visitors.

“Practically every rink I’ve been to ends up closing,” coach Howard remarked after taking his last spin on the ice. “I guess time moves on.”