The joy of outdoor rinks

Semi-weekly columnist explores the issue of outdoor skating/hockey rinks in Castlegar

I took a drive up to Kinnaird Park to look at the City of Castlegar’s newest initiative—an outdoor skating rink.  And I was amazed at how busy it was—youngsters towing one another from one end to the other, one girl practising her figure-skating spins, and a few toddlers half-skating, half-walking.

On one side, an older fellow was skating with a hockey stick and puck, which he kept shooting at a hockey net. In all, there were 40 or 50 people up there.

What is this drive to move ice rinks back outside? We’ve seen it happening at the professional hockey level, too. Each year now a major city is chosen as the site for an outdoor hockey game between two professional teams, now known as the Winter Classic. Usually, the city chosen builds the ice sheet in a stadium in order to have seating for the huge crowd they expect for the game. And the venture has been a huge success.

When I was growing up in a small Saskatchewan town, we had an indoor skating rink.  The quality of the ice, however, depended on the weather because we had “natural” ice. Our town couldn’t afford to install the system necessary for “artificial” ice, so when we had chinooks during the winter, we also had wet ice.

Elsewhere in the town, the works crew flooded small sheets of ice for neighbourhood use. We didn’t always skate there, but we often took our sticks, pucks, and nets to the site and ran up and down the ice, imitating hockey minus the skates. We also used to go there in twos to practice—one person shooting and the other person playing goal, and then switching.

What was neat about these outdoor rinks was that they stayed free of snow for much of the autumn and early winter. Because the cold weather hit our prairie town in mid-October, the rinks could be flooded then and remain free of snow well into December. That meant a lot less work shovelling snow and scraping the ice, both for the town crew and for us who lived near the outdoor rinks.

During my first year of teaching in another prairie town, I joined an outdoor rink committee. The town had an indoor curling rink, but no ice skating rink. So this committee — made up mainly of young teachers — planned and built an outdoor rink.

A few of us had ulterior motives. We wanted to play hockey against pick-up teams from other nearby villages, so we had to have a rink to invite them to. So we built a rink for the community.

For several weeks after school in the fall we had local equipment owners level the ground. Then we began the task of building a wall around the rink, somewhat like the boards in an ordinary hockey rink. As the first snow began to fall, we built a make-shift change room with a tiny stove to heat it occasionally.

We took turns flooding the rink and getting the ice into shape. Then, along with the kids of the village, we circled the rink and practiced our skating. Some days we had hockey scrimmages. I clearly remember playing a few hockey games there against neighbouring village teams.

Various townsfolk took turns clearing the rink after heavy snowfalls. It was one of those success stories you often hear about.

And now the success story of the Castlegar outdoor rink. I’ve had several people come up to me during the Christmas rush and congratulate me and the City for doing this. It was a good decision because of the fresh air and the freedom such outdoor rinks offer. And for older people, it’s like a trip back in time.