Canadian tradition alive and well

From backyards to local rinks skating in the great outdoors remains a popular winter pastime

For generations Canadian children have tried their new and hand-me-down skates on backyard skating rinks. Canadian winter scenes on postcards and paintings still depict a nation of rugged families with rosy-red cheeks skating on frozen ponds and young boys wearing oversized jerseys scoring goals in improvised nets.

Skating outdoors is still a thriving Canadian pastime but not necessarily in our backyards or on frozen lakes. The City of Calgary and the city’s community associations operate and maintain over 150 outdoor rinks built on green spaces; and yes there are still a few determined parents practising one of Canada’s great winter traditions — flooding the backyard as soon as the ground is frozen.

The City of Calgary maintains four outdoor rinks including Bowness Lagoon Olympic Plaza Prairie Winds and Marlborough Park throughout the winter season typically from December to February and they are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. weather permitting. The city also operates an Adopt-a-Rink program which is completely managed by volunteers.

“We have 124 volunteers for 50 rinks. In fact many families have signed up as a group to take care of their neighbourhood rink” says Diane Roberts acting manager of public education for the city’s Parks department. “These are pleasure rinks and are not for playing hockey” she says. “None of these rinks are boarded. Volunteers build the rink by creating a mound of dirt around the designated skating area also known as berms; the rink is then flooded with water when it’s cold enough” she explains.

Unfortunately the budget allocated for the Adopt-a-Rink program can only accommodate 50 outdoor rinks. “If a new community wants a rink they have to wait until one of the other rinks is no longer needed” says Roberts. She admits that the demand for more outdoor rinks is greater than what the city can currently afford.

Fortunately community associations across the city are also in the business of outdoor rinks. In 2004 Gaurav Mehra founder of the hockeycanadainfo.com website counted 124 outdoor rinks maintained by Calgary’s community associations including some ponds and lakes. “I wanted to create one comprehensive site for skating in all six NHL cities” says Mehra. “One of my goals is to provide a forum to help communities organize pickup hockey games.”

Unlike city-operated rinks community rinks are open to hockey players. The Renfrew Community Association outdoor rink for instance has a net at the north end with a six-metre-high metal fence behind it to stop pucks from smashing cars parked in the street. “Look over here you can see gouges in the metal post” says Scott Daley co-ordinator of the Renfrew outdoor rink for the last eight years. “And look here we bought this net three years ago and it’s time for a new one” he says as he points at the broken metal loops that used to hold the net in place.

But the Renfrew outdoor rink isn’t just for hockey fans. The Hennig family a household with five daughters ages seven to 14 used to live next door to the rink and spent a lot of time whirling around on the ice. “One thing that the children will miss this winter is the skating rink” says their mother Caroline from their new home in Costa Rica. “The girls mostly loved skating in the evening when it was dark — it felt special skating under the lights” she says.

The older Hennig girls also have fond memories of teaching “the babies” how to skate while their mother checked on them from her bedroom window. And for two years before moving south the five sisters set up a hot chocolate stand to provide a warm reprieve for cold skaters. “They tried to make a go of their little enterprise” says Caroline “but they only sold a few hot chocolates it was just too cold for anyone to be outside.”

Despite Calgary’s usual cold snaps the city has experienced some warmer spells during the winter season over the last five years. According to Daley global warming hasn’t negatively impacted the outdoor rink venture; in fact it’s been helpful. “The warmer temperatures get more people skating outdoors” says Daley. “And a good melt helps to even out the rink before we flood it.”

The Renfrew Community Association also has plenty of volunteers to help run the rink. “I have rink rats nine of them who take care of the rink” says Daley as we walk across the grassy rink-to-be. “They’re a group of teenagers and dads who love to play hockey.” The rink gets a lot of use with about 20 people at a time during the week and up to 40 people skating and shooting pucks on the weekend.

Although the rink is maintained by keen volunteers there is still an annual cost of $2000 to operate it. “The true cost is much higher” says Daley. “Without the support of the City of Calgary which provides water for flooding the rink we wouldn’t be able to afford it. And Enmax also gives us a rebate on our outdoor lights. We’re very grateful for that help.”

But not all communities have easy access to an outdoor rink and that’s why the Henderson family in Tuscany is laying down a slab of concrete 12 metres long by nine metres wide in their backyard — they’re building a skating rink which they’ll convert into a basketball court in the summer. “With the shortage of ice in the city we couldn’t get our four-year-old boys into the beginners’ program where they could learn how to skate” says Maureen Henderson whose husband Don is a linesman with the NHL.

The Hendersons have the support of their neighbours on each side of their home who have offered to help with the maintenance of the rink throughout the winter. “We live in a great neighbourhood. The kids on our street tend to congregate in our backyard and we like that” says Maureen.

Both Maureen and Don grew up skating outdoors. “I skated on White Swan Lake while growing up in B.C. and Don’s family has a tradition of skating on Bowness Lagoon on Christmas Eve” she says. Skating outdoors definitely runs through the Henderson’s blood and to help keep the tradition alive they’ve built a fire pit to keep skaters entertained and warm on those nippy winter nights.

The great Canadian tradition of outdoor skating is obviously thriving in Calgary. With the lack of indoor skating rinks for pleasure skating families are forced in a sense to venture outdoors and experience the pleasures of skating under a gentle snowfall the beaming sun or a starry sky — and best of all to experience the amazing sensation of sipping hot cocoa to combat frozen noses and toes.