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Photo by Sean Drews. More than 20 years ago, philanthropists Jane Bradley and Lloyd Pettit wrote a very large check to help construct a replacement for an aging athletic facility. When it opened, the new structure was heralded as a state-of-the-art addition to the local and national sporting scene.  Sound familiar? Although the BMO Harris Bradley […]


Photo by Sean Drews.

More than 20 years ago, philanthropists Jane Bradley and Lloyd Pettit wrote a very large check to help construct a replacement for an aging athletic facility. When it opened, the new structure was heralded as a state-of-the-art addition to the local and national sporting scene. 

Sound familiar? Although the BMO Harris Bradley Center shares a similar back story thanks to the generosity of the Pettits, the Pettit National Ice Center (500 S. 84th St., 414-266-0100, thepettit.com) is still regarded as a world-class facility that attracts world-class athletes. But just because the Olympic rings grace the building’s exterior, thousands of speedskaters, figure skaters, hockey players, curlers and even marathon runners who might never come close to sniffing a podium are welcome to slip on the skates and dream – at least for the day – about Olympic gold.

Prior to his first visit to the Pettit, Pete Schmidt had never picked up a hockey stick. But he’s a dutiful father of two boys, and when his oldest caught hockey fever, Schmidt was looking for a way to give his son a taste of the ice action, without diving headlong into what could be a passing fad. 

“Oftentimes you heard people say, ‘Don’t do hockey. It’s so much money; it’s so much time,’” Schmidt recalls. But the Pettit’s programs offer aspiring Gretzkys a chance “to learn the sport without being on a team,” Schmidt says. “You don’t have to make this huge commitment. And the level of instruction is just top-notch.” 

Schmidt also points to the numerous ice sheets that give instructors ample space to provide lessons. On a recent visit, one of two rinks was full of slap shooters, while the other was dotted with figure skaters working on their sit spins and double axels. And the Olympic-size oval, one of only two in the country and a handful in the world, featured skaters whizzing by as banners of Olympic medalists such as Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen and Alyson Dudek looked on. 

The rich legacy of speedskating – the United State’s winningest sport for the Winter Olympics – continues to this day, with Blair sitting on the board of directors and competitions dotting the calendar from September to March, when the ice is in place. 

But marketing director Kevin Butler says his favorite – and busiest – time of the year is December, when holiday traditions bring skaters to the ice for annual visits during the public skate sessions, many of whom have gone through the figure or speed skating schools.

“There’s so much energy in the air,” Butler says. “It’s busy, which means long days, but the buzz and the amount of people in the building is just phenomenal.” 

A growing number of patrons might never touch the ice, though. According to Butler, more than 37,000 runners and walkers took advantage of the city’s longest indoor track (at 445 meters) last winter.

One of those would be Chris Ponteri, organizer of the Icebreaker Indoor Marathon (Jan. 23-25). Ponteri expects about 800 runners competing in various events such as a 5K race as well as the signature marathon, in which runners complete about 95 laps.

Ponteri argues running in a circle for that long is not an exercise in boredom. “At the Chicago Marathon, you’re lucky if you’re friends and family can see you two or three times on the course,” Ponteri says.

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“Here, they can see you 95 times.”


The weekend’s events are a win-win for the Pettit, as half of the proceeds go to the center, which netted about $8,000 last year. For Ponteri, it’s a no-brainer to give back.

“It’s a great facility to have a race like this,” Ponteri says. “We’re really lucky in Milwaukee to have this.”

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