Time to rejoice — 'Tis the season of outdoor skating rinks
All most people need to take advantage of free access to this tremendous and underappreciated public resource is a pair of skates, Edward Keenan writes.
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It is that time of year once again: when the guy you run into in the elevator every day stops explaining that it’s really the humidity and starts asking if it is cold enough for you; when you allow yourself once again to listen to “Fairytale of New York,” saved for the season so as not to wear it out; when even as you’re still using your rake, you start wondering where you’ve stored that snow shovel.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s that time of year once again when the City of Toronto opens its 52 outdoor skating rinks for the season.
That, despite the cold, is a good time of year.
“There is no finer experience for a hockey player than skating on outdoor ice,” the most exciting hockey player to ever play the game, Bobby Orr, wrote in his memoir Orr: My Story. “The sensation of skate blades cutting into crisp outdoor ice, the crunching sound of ice chips flying in tidy arcs… The fresh cool air against your face followed by the glorious warmth when you got home and rubbed the feeling back into your toes.”
Orr was describing his childhood in Parry Sound, Ont., when during winter they’d head out into the bay, or onto the river, or over to the rink in the schoolyard, and just play for hours and hours, organizing games with whoever showed up for as long as they could last, using boots or snow piles or whatever was handy for nets. “They truly remain my fondest memories of hockey,” wrote a man who once scored a Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime. “Our games were primarily about the sheer joy of play, of being able to go outside with your buddies and simply have a good time.”
Add Orr’s fondest memory to the ritual list of outdoor-ice scripture. Alongside an annual Reading from The Book of The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier: “The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons,” Carrier sayeth. Seasons when, “our real life was on the skating rink.” Alongside, too, the legend of Walter Gretzky, whose backyard rink in Brantford begat the miraculous wonder of number 99.
As Orr writes in his book, these stories passed into mythology can seem like historic tales of bygone rural times. But the experience they describe of gliding under the open sky with the cold air in your nose is not long ago and far away — it is available here, now, to all of us. Through the years, the City of Toronto has not only maintained its operation of artificial outdoor rinks, it has expanded the supply, opening new rinks and ice trails. A skating path is set to open at the new Bentway Park under the Gardiner Expressway this year; a new outdoor path and rink in Scarborough has had its opening delayed by construction problems.
The city maintains a list of all the rinks with information about which hours are available for public pleasure skating or shinny (including reserved hours for women, for teens, for toddlers and so on) at its website, and a group of dedicated community ice evangelists also maintains its own list, including subjective local reviews of ice conditions, changing facilities, rental availability and helmet enforcement, at cityrinks.ca.
All most people need to take advantage of free access to this tremendous and underappreciated public resource is a pair of skates. Maybe a helmet if they’re kids or they want to play hockey. And a stick, too. Most of the rinks are open — weather permitting — from late November until the end of the March break. A long season, and a cold one, made not just bearable but enjoyable because there is ice time available.
Before lacing up and heading out, let’s add one more iconic recommendation, from a source nearer in history and much closer in geography: the recent parable of P.K. Subban, among the very best defencemen in the NHL today. According to his father Karl as told to my Star colleague Scott Colby in their book How We Did It, as a junior kindergarten student P.K. skated every night of December at Nathan Phillips Square after 10 p.m., because Karl was working evenings. He’d leave work at about 9 p.m., drive home, “then wake up P.K. who had gone to bed wearing his snowsuit.” They would drive downtown to city hall from their north Etobicoke home, and P.K. would play shinny with the adults who stayed there late. “I’d walk around the rectangular rink watching P.K. and thinking about how hockey was making him feel the way it had made me feel as a kid growing up. He’d been bitten by the hockey bug and saw himself as one of the players,” Karl says. “We’d stay until one or two in the morning, then get a slice of pizza and go home.”
So much of Toronto winter can be a slog, as the season wears on and the curbs turn to slush and the early dark and relentless grey chill stretch into a seemingly endless plod.
But on the frozen ground across Toronto, what Orr called the sheer joy of play is there for anyone of any age to freely indulge. It’s that time of year once again. Time to rejoice and be glad.