It’s cold and windy on the roof of the Watergate Hotel, where Marc Kohn is making sparks fly as he sharpens a pair of hockey skates. He isn’t bothered by the chill.
“You’ve got be an outdoor guy if you want to run a hockey rink,” he says.
Kohn, 54, built the 2,100-square-foot rink himself. For the last three years he has doggedly schlepped it from place to place as he searches for a permanent home for the sheet of synthetic ice that is his memorial to his stepdaughter, Melanie Osborne.
Osborne was 35 when she died from a respiratory disease in July 2015. Kohn, a stoic man who had been a video editor at Discovery Communications, was devastated.
“A week or two afterwards, I was in this world where nothing seems to make sense anymore and you start questioning why things happen,” he says.
Kohn needed a way to grieve. He needed a project.
Kohn decided he would build a memorial for his stepdaughter. Osborne was a diehard Washington Capitals fan. So in the months after her death, he built a skating rink in the backyard of his Poolesville home. He constructed it out of synthetic ice — ice made from interconnected panels of hard plastic that skaters can glide on, even in above-freezing temperatures.
He spent $40,000 to purchase the synthetic ice, grade the land and build a cinder block foundation.
“Every day I could go out and smash a hammer into something,” he says. “It was cathartic. It felt good to get up and work on something and be tired at the end of the day.”
Kohn is a lifelong hockey fan himself. He grew up in Boston, where his family had pizza and puck nights, eating dinner and watching Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and the rest of the 1970s-era Boston Bruins battle it out on TV.
As a Washington resident, he became a Capitals fan, and his love for the game rubbed off on his stepdaughter.
“When she was in high school, if you wanted to go on a date with Melanie, you had to take her to a Caps game,” Kohn says.
“When the Capitals went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998, she ended up going to every playoff game.”
Kohn opened Mel’s Rink, named for Osborne, in December 2015. It attracted friends and neighbors who came to skate and play hockey, Kohn says that he’d walk outside on Saturday mornings and see 15 kids at the rink with their parents.
“I’d go out and get coffee and doughnuts for people, and we’d have a good community (atmosphere),” he says.
Those early weeks of the rink’s operation gave Kohn some comfort.
“I’d think Melanie was looking down on me and saying, ‘Wow, there’s 15 kids down there that have never played hockey.’ I mean, it was just a really cool atmosphere.”
When things go wrong
Then a Poolesville resident complained to Montgomery County officials about the rink. Kohn says he doesn’t know the reason for the complaint. But a month later, he received a cease-and-desist notice from the Department of Permitting Services. It said he must dismantle the rink because it was built on land in the agricultural reserve, an area not zoned for public uses — and the county considered the rink a public use.
“I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I couldn’t believe it,” Kohn says. “People had been coming over to skate and enjoy it.
Some people had never picked up a hockey stick in their life. And their parents had gone out and purchased ice skates for Christmas or Chanukah, and then they came back over and they had their skates and a hockey stick. And they’re playing and having fun in the game of hockey for the very first time. It was incredible to see.”
Kohn, who now lives in Silver Spring, was determined to find a solution — a mentality he says he developed during 25 years working in television production.
“In the TV world, so many things get planned out to the nth degree, and so many things go wrong every day,” he says. “You’re planning on shooting on a sunny day and it rains. Every day something goes wrong, and you just say, ‘OK, we just have to go to Plan B.’”
Kohn’s quest attracted the attention of local and national media outlets, and 24 hours after The Washington Post published a story about him in December 2015, Kohn received calls from two lawyers, who offered to meet with him at no charge and discuss legal options, he says. He and his lawyers began attending Montgomery County Council and Poolesville Town Commission meetings.
At first county officials responded positively to his idea of finding a permanent spot for the rink in Poolesville, he says. Poolesville officials rejected that, he said.
Then, Montgomery County Recreation Director Gabe Albornoz suggested an alternative: The county would pay for the synthetic ice, an offer contingent on Kohn first finding a suitable site in the county and coming up with the money to lease the location, according to department spokeswoman Carmen Berrios, and Kohn.
“The county’s commitment to paying for the synthetic ice is definitely there, but the first order of business is for him to find a location,” she says.
Kohn agreed and has since turned his project into a nonprofit organization called the Mel’s Rink Foundation, aimed at helping children with disabilities learn how to skate and play hockey. He is still raising money toward a lease and hunting for a location.
Meanwhile, the rink, lacking a permanent home, has been on the move.
Working 15 hours a day
Since setting up the rink in his backyard, Kohn has become an itinerant rink master. Mel’s Rink operated during the winter of 2016-17 at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.
Last November, the rink went up on the Watergate roof, and adults and children pay to skate there.
For 15 hours a day, five days a week, Kohn tends to the ice and sharpens skates. The physical labor, he says, is what keeps him going.
“The other day they had to recaulk some of the windows on the outside of the hotel,” he says. “So they put a big crane up there, and I had to take down most of the boards on the rink. I said, ‘OK, not a big deal.’ You unbolt it and you move it and you spend a couple hours taking the stuff apart. What’s the difference if I spend 10 hours a day in a dark editing suite putting together a Discovery film? This is what I do now.”
Since Kohn began working at the Watergate, he has worked with skating instructor Julian Shapiro, who runs an adaptive skating program in Silver Spring for children with physical and intellectual disabilities.
Shapiro is at the rink a couple of days a week, either to teach classes or to help Kohn during the regular evening skate.
“It’s been great,” he says. “Marc is a hard worker and it’s kind of been rubbing off on me.”
Those children have given Kohn something new to work for.
“Once you see the kids come on the ice and skate and learn something new and they beg their parents to stay for another 10 minutes — I can’t think of anything that would be more gratifying. That’s what drives me now.”
And when spring comes, Kohn may move his rink to an indoor facility in New York City. But that would be temporary, too. As for a permanent location, he says he would be content to set up the rink on the top floor of an under-used parking garage.
Anything, he says, that will keep kids smiling, and keep him busy.