The Lakeland Ice Arena, housed in a repurposed bowling alley at 3395 W. Memorial Blvd., already is seeing action as local youth, high school and collegiate hockey teams begin practice for the upcoming season.

LAKELAND — Ice hockey has a permanent home in Polk County with the soon-to-open Lakeland Ice Arena, where anyone can lace up a pair of blades and take a spin, or a spill.

The arena, housed in a repurposed bowling alley at 3395 W. Memorial Blvd., already is seeing action as local youth, high school and collegiate hockey teams begin practice for the upcoming season.

The facility opens to the public for recreational ice skating in mid-September.

More than a rink, Lakeland Ice Arena features a cafe restaurant serving pizza, burgers, wings and more. There’s a full liquor bar and plenty of snacks, candy and other goodies, including coffee, soda and energy drinks.

Also on site is Rinkside Sports, a retail shop selling a full line of apparel, equipment and supplies for figure skating and ice hockey. The company with shops in Brandon and Wesley Chapel also sharpens blades and repairs equipment.

Arena operators Paul and Nanette Granville have created a space with a modern rustic vibe decorated in orange and gray with plenty of warm wood, including tables, benches, bar and countertops fashioned from salvaged bowling lanes.

Spectators can stay warm and lounge at tables scattered throughout the facility, or pass through automatic sliding doors into the ice arena, where the temperature is a chilly 48 degrees. Warm clothing is advised.

Through a collaboration with the Tampa Bay Lightning, construction is set to begin on a ball hockey rink at the West Memorial Boulevard property, site of the former Interstate Lanes bowling facility. A focus is to incubate a youth hockey program that will feed future high school and college teams.

"It's all to do with the Lightning Made (youth) program," Paul Granville said. "It's teaching kids values through hockey."

A countywide high school hockey club based at George Jenkins High begins its 19th season with a Sept. 6 game in Brandon. On Sept. 20, the team hosts its first home game at Lakeland Ice Arena against Tampa’s Freedom High School.

Not having to leave the county is a big deal, said Joe Niemas, coach of the Jenkins team.

“(We’ve gone) 18 years without a sheet of ice,” he said during a recent practice session.

Having a local rink for practice and games saves a lot of time, not to mention wear and tear on families, he said, adding that the arena already has boosted team participation.

“We have 34 kids (playing this season),” Niemas said. “Last year we had 12.”

The arena has seating for approximately 300 spectators, and hockey games will be free to the public, Granville said. He’s also installed work stations with free internet access on the warm side of the arena so students waiting to take turns on the ice can catch up on homework.

Christian Nichols, 18, a freshman at Florida Southern College majoring in computer science, said he’s wowed by the facility, which includes a locker room dedicated to FSC’s players.

Nichols played hockey as a high school senior at Northstar Christian Academy in Minnesota, which is building a new hockey program. He said he chose FSC for the same reason.

“I wasn’t too nervous going to a new program” in Lakeland, he said. “I did that last year.”

FSC’s first game is Sept. 27 in Orlando against the University of Central Florida.

Nichols, whose family resides in Naples, said he’s especially excited to play in his team’s home opener in Lakeland on Sept. 28.

FSC’s fledgling hockey team is expected to join the American Collegiate Hockey Association following an application process that includes a transition period similar to those in NCAA sports, according to a college news release. The association has three men’s divisions and two women’s divisions. The Moccasins will compete at the Division III level.

If all goes well, FSC will become the 12th school in Florida with a team in the ACHA, joining Eastern Florida State College, Embry-Riddle, Florida Atlantic University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida State University, Florida Institute of Technology, Lynn University, University of Miami, University of Tampa, University of South Florida and UCF.

Eric Pera can be reached at eric.pera@theledger.com or 863-802-7528.