Local rink organizers lament this year's poor skating conditions
Guy Thériault likes to joke that he didn't need a Zamboni to take care of his community rink this winter. He needed a lawnmower.
For more than a decade, Thériault has managed a puddle rink at St. Ambroise Park in Vanier. It's mostly a one-man operation, but friends and neighbours help him out when he travels for work or holidays.
Thériault focuses on shovelling snow away from the rink and flooding the area to form strong ice. He knows the work is worth it when he looks out his kitchen window and sees his community skating together.
"There's nothing that warms my heart more than watching dozens of kids and parents congregating at the park and having a great time on my little puddle [rink]," Thériault said.
But this year, Ottawa's weather threw a wrench in his plans.
"It's just been a yo-yo of weather patterns for the past two months, making it the most challenging winter I've ever had since I've been doing outdoor rinks," Thériault said. Over the last two and a half months, he estimates his rink got about a dozen good skating days.
The local outdoor rink, which Thériault calls an important community spot, has struggled with Ottawa's unusual weather this year.
Many organizers also say the challenge has dampened the enthusiasm to maintain these rinks, and some question whether outdoor rinks have a reliable future due to climate change.
John Gomes, who runs the Optimist Park rink in Vanier, said his team never found a rhythm this winter due to a Goldilocks effect. It was either too cold, and the water would freeze before it hit the ice, or too warm, and the team's hard work would rapidly melt.
Gomes is grateful for his team's dedication, but still concerned about staff reliability. "It's often hard to find volunteers that will be committed to the work it takes," he said.
The challenge this year has Gomes, who is self-employed and has four daughters, questioning whether to hang up the shovel after seven years of service. It's a busy household, he said.
"The way we schedule our volunteers, everybody gets a night, and when we have heavy snow days we all kind of chip in when we can, but it is a lot."
Why local rinks matter to neighbourhoods
Organizers say their rinks' intermittent openings deprive their communities of valuable moments to bond.
When the ice surface is good, Thériault said, everyone comes out to skate.
"It does become a gathering spot for the community, which means people start socializing more," Thériault said. "When there's no rink, that lacks a little."
Gomes said the Optimist Park rink has a reputation for good hockey. When the skating conditions are good, the lights are on until late at night. But that didn't happen this year.
There are publicly available refrigerated rinks that can withstand warmer temperatures. The City of Ottawa manages four rinks: Canterbury, Lansdowne, City Hall and Nepean, but hockey isn't allowed. Gomes said having local rinks within walking distance is important.
"A couple of local schools in our neighbourhood — one in particular — they're walking distance, so two or three classes a day will be skating on the rink," Gomes said. "It's real sad that [the rink] didn't get the youth this year, and it didn't bring the joy that it often does."
Shawn Stevenson, a volunteer for the Optimist Park rink, highlighted one community event that did run successfully on the ice. In early February, the rink hosted an on-ice drag show in collaboration with Capital Pride.
"[The show] was certainly good in terms of absolutely sending the message out to everybody that you belong here," Stevenson said. "This neighbourhood is for everyone."
Thériault said he's also had new Canadians come to his rink to skate in the past and he has organized drives to support underprivileged youth in his community who don't have skates or hockey sticks.
"It's a gathering spot where people get to learn a new skill when it comes to skating, and then maybe graduate to a better outdoor rink," Thériault said.
His daughter learned to skate at St. Ambroise, and years later, she now brings the children she babysits, and tutors, to learn themselves.
"It's sort of a stepping stone. People learn to skate at their community outdoor rink, and from there on they might become figure skaters, hockey players, ringette players or even hopefully Olympians," he said.
Ottawa at risk of losing community rinks entirely
Robert McLeman, an environmental studies professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and founder of RinkWatch, says community rinks could be at risk in the coming decades.
He says a neighbourhood rink needs an extended period of cold temperatures, ideally five to 10 days of –5 C or colder. Ottawa is currently inside a zone where temperatures can be that cold consistently, but McLeman says areas in southwestern Ontario like Windsor are already at risk.
Even further into the future, it could become "so mild that there will be winters when in Ottawa you can't build a backyard skating rink because it simply never gets cold enough to do so," he said.
"Right now, hockey and skating is a democratic sport, but we lose some of that."
Thériault said he might use a tennis court next year to provide a flat surface to build a rink because he doesn't want to stop due to a changing climate.
"I will continue doing this as long as I can. For me, it's a way of giving back to the community."