Toronto’s artificial outdoor rinks bring neighbourhood skaters together

Daily Journalism

Published via The Canadian Press, Jan. 13, 2014.

TORONTO – The great Canadian winter pastime of lacing up a pair of worn-but-loved skates and going for a spin is alive and well in the teeming metropolis of Toronto.

Thanks to a carefully cultivated set of 52 artificial outdoor rinks mostly nestled in neighbourhood parks, residents can flee the hustle and bustle of city life for the classic sound and feel of sharpened blades on freshly groomed ice.

Toronto’s outdoor rink program is no minor feat to run, but brings communities together as skaters glide through the coldest season.

On a recent weekday morning roughly a dozen people were chasing the puck in a game of pickup shinny or gracefully moving across the twin compressor-cooled ice pads at a rink tucked inside west-end Dufferin Grove park, their numbers slowly growing.

In the background, a Zamboni painted in city white-and-blue unloaded its ice scrapings — a sign skaters everywhere know means a pristine surface is at hand.

Isabella Huberman, bundled up for winter and standing tall with her figure skates on, lives two blocks away and hits the rink — known for excellent ice — several times a week.

“It’s always open, it’s free, the people are nice, you can be outside, too. That’s probably the biggest draw — that you can be outside in cold weather and do fun things,” she said.

Meanwhile, players in an impromptu match on the adjacent hockey rink clamoured to put a puck into two opposing empty nets and slid into the boards.

“It’s nice to have this community place where people can meet,” Huberman said, before being joined by her friend for a relaxed go-round on the second, more leisurely ice pad.

Standing inside the rink’s cozy clubhouse (complete with wood stove) and intently chatting with two of its staff is Jutta Mason, a self-styled “rink enthusiast.”
It’s a moniker she’s earned.

Mason helps run, a website that acts as both booster and watchdog for the city’s outdoor ice surfaces. It features daily updates on conditions and offers a 49-page manual on ways the group thinks the rinks could be improved.

“Really we’re the outdoor rink capital of the world” when it comes to the artificially cooled pads, said Mason, who surprisingly doesn’t skate but loves how the spots bring people together for the quintessential winter activity.

“It’s just so wonderful that we have these social and exercise and fun game spaces — so many of them — in Toronto.”

Those spaces don’t just naturally appear when the first flakes of snow fall into town.

City waterfront parks manager James Dann said a small army of several hundred staff keep a watchful eye over the ice surfaces — plowing rinks by hand or with Zambonis throughout the usual December-February season — as well as those using them.

Making the winter magic possible — even with temperatures above zero — is a complex system of pipes laid underneath stone or concrete slabs that in a way are the ice’s roots.

Chilled brine is pumped from a compressor hidden away in a clubhouse, cooling the slabs to the point where ice — ideally a “perfect” one-inch thick — can form on top, Dann explained.

And though it coated nearly everything with a slippery sheen, Dann said the brutal ice storm that walloped the city weeks ago didn’t necessarily help rinks out.

That’s because it left behind bumpy rink surfaces, and created additional trouble. Gates froze shut and, with the power knocked out at some rinks, there was no way to fill Zambonis with heated water — a crucial last step in resurfacing that makes ice stronger.

“Without the ability to make hot water you can’t make cold ice,” he said.
Dann said that the city has made outdoor rinks a priority and is looking to refurbish older ones and also add more Zambonis to its stable.

“Canadians like to skate and people like to get out skating and… we’re doing all that we can to encourage that.”

Julian Meanchoff just moved to the neighbourhood and was using the Dufferin rink for the second time. Clad in a hoodie, jeans and hockey gloves, he says he was the first to grace the ice that morning.

“Soon after people showed up. Within five minutes there were people here, and there was a game going within 10 minutes after that.”

“I don’t know anybody but it doesn’t really seem to matter,” he said before rejoining the neighbourhood match.

Photo credit: City of Toronto/Flickr CC