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Outdoor rinks a casualty of not-so-wintry weather

We all know that some of the greatest hockey legends had their start playing on outdoors ponds or backyard rinks. Walter Gretzky built a rink for his son Wayne to practice on, while Bobby Hull honed his skills on the frozen-over Bay of Quinte.

But despite being an important part of Canadian culture, pond hockey seems to be in decline: not because the love of the sport has faded, but due to ponds and outdoor rinks simply not freezing over. More often than not these days, kids are forced to go to indoor rinks. There’s always ice, but they can be difficult to get to and the cost can be prohibitive for a game of shinny.

Pond hockey has always been a casual game, often played with three or four players aside. Body-checking is against the rules. It’s just players with helmets, sticks and skates on the ice for the love of the sport. But it does require ice, which means some cooperation from the weather. There hasn’t been much of that this year.
Dave Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada, said this has been one of the worst winters on record for those who enjoy an outdoor skate.
“We did have winter: it was last Tuesday (Jan. 3),” jokes Phillips explaining that the temperatures dropped below normal for that day but were above normal 24 hours later.
Most people have begun to cancel not just postpone making backyard rinks, giving into the fact Mother Nature is just not in the right mood.

A long history of pond hockey faces challenges from milder winters

Last year was the best winter in a decade for making ice and taking advantage of the outdoor rinks and frozen ponds in the region. From December 2010 though the end of January 2011, 51 of 62 days provided temperatures well below freezing, perfect for skaters looking for a game of pond hockey, said Phillips.
Compare that to this winter where we have only had a total of 11 days of below-freezing temperatures.

The worst year for pond hockey was in 2006-2007, when the entire winter saw a total of 21 days where the thermostat dropped below zero. Hardly enough to even consider making an outdoor rink.

While Woolwich and Wellesley townships operate indoor arenas, they don’t directly provide outdoor rinks. That work falls to recreation associations, as well as a host of private ice surfaces, some open to the public and some confined to residential backyards. No one’s have much luck this year.

In Wellesley there are five outdoor rinks in the township that are operated with the help of community groups and volunteers, including St. Clements, Wellesley, Linwood and Hawkesville with a shared rink at Heidelberg. Each of those rinks has been closed for most of this season.

“They were open for a while but since we have had such mild temperatures over the last few weeks we have had to close them, but hope to have them operating soon,” said Brad Voisin, Wellesley’s executive director of facilities.

The wait may not be long, as temperatures are expected to drop well below the freezing mark this weekend. Environment Canada is calling for a return to winter conditions, with between five and 10 centimetres of snow arriving by Friday.

“It will feel and look more like winter this weekend,” said Phillips. “We will see some lasting snowfall this Friday and temperatures are not expected to rise above minus six for
the next four days. This weekend could be the window people are looking for to make ice.”

Those colder temperatures are not expected to last, however, as Tuesday’s high will be two degrees above.

“Even if the temperatures rise during the day those that have made an outdoor rink should be able to keep and use them because they will stay frozen overnight,” said Phillips. “It might be a bit slushy with the warmer temperatures but it will freeze again.”

In the past a snow base was needed to make an outdoor rink, but kits are available now with plastic liners to hold in the frozen water, allowing people to enjoy their home made rinks even if there is no snow on the ground.

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