JASON WENTZELL, who has been a Philadelphia police officer for 17 years, grew up playing roller hockey at the Fishtown Rec Rink and firmly believes it saved his life.
"There's two paths to go down in this neighborhood," the lifelong Fishtowner said. "As a kid, I hung around with a rough crowd. Some of them went one way. A lot of them went the other way.
"I lived two, three blocks away from the rink," Wentzell continued. "As soon as school was out, we'd go right over there. I was a lot better off playing hockey than hanging on the street corner."
For 40 years, Thomas "Hooker" Lynch - nicknamed for his great hook shot - lived across narrow Montgomery Avenue from the Fishtown Rec Rink and devoted his life to keeping the struggling neighborhood's kids on skates and out of trouble.
Lynch died from cancer in July 2001, and the Fishtown kids like Wentzell who played for him, now middle-age with families of their own, say it seemed as if the rink died with him.
When the Daily News reported its shocking deterioration last year, the rink that had been the heart of Fishtown was in dire need of major surgery.
The playing surface had so many dangerous cracks and crevices that roller hockey was a distant memory, and even foot hockey, in which players wear sneakers instead of skates, was risky.
The rusted metal roof leaked so badly on rainy days that Bob Mulvenna, who ran adult-league games, often delayed them for up to an hour while his brother, Danny, dried the big puddles with a propane blowtorch.
The boards were badly rotted, loose and constantly popping nails.
Scott Tharp, president and CEO of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, said that when he read the Daily News story on the Fishtown Rec Rink's woes, his immediate impulse was to help.
The Snider Foundation had already put up half the $14 million cost of renovating four of Philadelphia's public ice rinks, including Scanlon in Kensington, to make them year-round facilities.
"Given what we'd done at the Scanlon Ice Rink nearby in Kensington, Fishtown Rink was kind of a no-brainer for us," Tharp said. "We wanted to get the Fishtown rink rejuvenated so kids could play roller hockey there again, and then it would be a natural transition for those kids who wanted to play ice hockey to come to Scanlon.
"I went to Mr. Snider and said, 'This is something we should support,' and as always, he was quick to say, 'Go for it.' "
Tharp took his idea to the two key guys who felt the same way: Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis, who oversees the city's Parks & Recreation Department, has "Philly gym rat" in his DNA and watched all four of his children play roller hockey and indoor soccer at Fishtown Rink, and City Council President Darrell Clarke, who grew up playing ball in Strawberry Mansion.
Clarke told the Daily News he is "excited to see that the guys I grew up with are now the coaches in the neighborhood leagues."
So when DiBerardinis said rehabbing Fishtown Rink would cost $40,000, he, Tharp and Clarke knew it would happen.
Clarke, who contributed $15,000 from his district budget, said the makeover was doable because of the city's new policy of using its own employees who are licensed skilled tradesman to do restorations such as gym floors and roofs, provided that materials are paid for by the district councilperson.
The Snider Foundation kicked in $10,000 toward the rink's restoration and donated a trove of pricey goalie equipment, helmets and new jerseys for Fishtown's young hockey players.
DiBerardinis said Parks & Rec contributed $15,000 and 400 hours of skilled-trades labor - so Fishtown rink got a makeover instead of a patchwork job.
The boards are new. The roof is plasticized and leak-proofed. The concrete playing surface is now so smooth that Wentzell, who runs youth foot-hockey league games on Sunday mornings, dreams of bringing back the roller hockey of his youth by next winter.
But for now, 80 Fishtown kids on four foot-hockey teams are running the rink safely and joyously, and Wentzell doesn't have to get there at the crack of dawn to hammer loose nails back into rotted boards as he did last year.
On a recent frigid Sunday morning, coach Bob Markley, a man in constant hyperdrive, took a break from shouting himself hoarse, encouraging his fledgling players, when his 8-year-old son, nicknamed "Boo," ran over and said, "Dad, my hands are freezing."
Markley took off his own gloves and offered them to Boo.
"Then your hands will be cold, dad," Boo said. Markley insisted. Boo ran back to the hockey action and scored a goal. Markley smiled warmly while visibly shivering.
"He's my man," Markley said. "My dad coached me here when I was a kid, and now I'm coaching my son here.
"I'm 41. When I was a kid growing up two blocks from here, this was a roller-hockey mecca. Teams came from South Philly, Port Richmond, Kensington to play here. I came home from school, put my roller skates on and didn't take them off till I went to bed."
Markley pointed to a small house across the street. "Hooker Lynch lived right over there," he said. "The whole playground was his baby. He pretty much raised us here. This was the backbone of the neighborhood. Once Hooker passed away, the rink started getting vandalized and everything here turned to crap."
But now, Fishtown Rink is back. Back for 80 neighborhood kids. Back for 200 neighborhood men who battle sore muscles and each other in the adult league.
Against his better judgment, Markley let friends persuade him to join that adult league, where he soon discovered he wasn't 26 years old - the last time he played hockey - anymore.
"I haven't run in 10 years," he said, laughing, while Boo raced up and down the rink effortlessly. "After the first game, I could hardly get out of bed. My legs were sore as hell for a week. What was I thinking? That I was going to be jumping around like it was 1993?"
He laughed again, watching his son as his father once watched him. Markley hopes, like Wentzell, that Fishtown Rink is on its way to being a roller-hockey mecca again.
That, said Markley, would be a great way to honor the beloved Thomas "Hooker" Lynch - and to keep Fishtown kids happy and safe, as Hooker did for as long as he lived.