|The ongoing thaw has temporarily wiped out Montreal's outdoor ice surfaces|
One breezy afternoon in November, 1992 I was wandering around the Beaches in Toronto when I heard a thunderous bang. It was an unmistakable sound, one that any Canadian would immediately recognize.
It was a hockey puck slamming into wooden boards.
It made no sense: everybody knows that outdoor ice surfaces open only in early January.
It was indeed just that: an outdoor ice surface, open in the fall, while it was still well above freezing.
My jaw dropped, as I stared upon this miraculous contraption - an artificially-refrigerated outdoor hockey rink. To an inveterate rink rat who spent countless hours playing outdoor pickup games as a teen at Murray Park, such a thing was almost overwhelming.
(Although upon closer inspection, I was less-than-impressed because guys were just posing around on their own, practicing their slapshots, the lowest form of outdoor ice play...sigh).
From about ages 12-17 I'd anxiously await the opening of the rinks each winter and pray that they'd endure just a few days more in March. I had never dreamed that an artificial system could extend the outdoor hockey season, such a concept seemed like a miracle, a triumph of technology.
But indeed not only were outdoor refrigerated rinks possible, Montreal even had five-or-so such rinks in the mid-1950s, well before my time.
A similar total of refrigerated outdoor ice surfaces have recently been installed around the city, thanks partially to a fund offered by the Montreal Canadiens. One sits behind Verdun city hall, another next to Doug Harvey arena, but both were closed when I went to snoop in.
The fact that Toronto was able to get such a thing organized, when Montreal had no such facilities for about 50 years was highly troubling and got me wondering about how Montreal operates this most fabulous of outdoor winter park resources.
For those who have never played outdoor hockey, it's a daily joyous miracle. Guys just skate around with pucks until someone proposes a game and teams are chosen, with as few as two teams per player.
Hockey virtuousos are patient with the little kids, people pass the puck and play as a team with people they just met, it's truly fantastic.
In fact I played a two-on-two game this week at Oxford Park, where the great Doug Harvey played as a kid, we ranged in age from 50 to 10 but it worked out fine.
Injuries are rare, sportsmanship is high and it's a great example of undersupervised, spontaneous play.
Outdoor shinny is the pure hockey, the poetry of a snow flake falling on your nose while you launch a stretch pass from behind your net whie a winter's breeze hits your back.
NHL players from places like Vancouver, ie: Josh Gorges, etc, played virtually ever moment of hockey they learned while growing up indoors under the rules and supervision of adults, that seems sad.
In contrast, Larry Robinson said that he'd play about 11 hours a day outdoors in Ottawa as a kid, while Don Saleski (I think) once said that it was so cold out west when he played that a puck shattered on the goalpost.
Artificially-refrigerated outdoor rinks cost about $500,000 to install (these figures are probably higher as I did this research a decade ago). Those rinks don't cope well with sunshine, so some places such as the one at LCC have a sort of roof to protect from the melting rays and snow.
The City of Montreal had 177 outdoor skating surfaces in the 1950s, including five outdoor refrigerated rinks but I don't know where those were or when they were removed.
By 1964, that total had grown to 237 outdoor ice surfaces, in 1974 it rose further to 274. But in 1980 Mayor Drapeau ordered 92 of them closed and, of course, many people objected.
Those residents were given the option of maintaining the rinks on their own.
So by around 2000, Montreal had 168 outdoor rinks, 20 of which were maintained by local residents.
City employees put up the boards and they'd only remove snow accumulations of 15 cm or more.
One of those rink-maintenance volunteers was realtor Michael Applebaum, who got into politics after he started shovelling the McDonald Park rink.
Applebaum told me a dozen years back that it costs the city $16,000 per year to maintain an outdoor rink, but that cost goes down to $5,000 if residents do the work. He proposed that any community association could have the extra $11,000 to spend on other stuff if they agreed to do the rink maintenance on their own.
In Cote St. Luc town officials once tried to pay locals $2,000 to maintain outdoor rinks but they didn't do a good job, so that project was cancelled.
I don't know if any rinks are still maintained by citizens, I somehow doubt it though. The ice near my home was briefly placed in that category around 1998 but then returned as a full service rink, possibly because a new piece of equipment, a sort out outdoor zamboni has made maintenance more efficient.
The recent week-long warm spell has crossed out a bunch of days from the outdoor skating calendar and combined with some slow-organizing -- rinks were only opened in early January even though weather was cold enough as of about Dec. 20 -- the season is not looking very good.
Longtime St. Henry councillor Germain Pregent once told me that some winters were so warm or rainy that the rinks lasted for only 28 days and, of course, those likely included a few days where it was just too cold to go out, as rinks tend to empty out when it hits -10 or lower. Rinks also tend to be empty Friday and Saturday nights when people are partying.
The city now has a website which lists the condition of 212 city outdoor ice surfaces but that doens't mean we have more rinks than we once did: the city's boundaries have changed and as it includes former non-Montreal municipalities like Vedun and Outremont.
Outdoor hockey is one of the main reasons I would have a hard leaving Montreal. It would seem barbaric to live in a place that didn't have this amazing feature that brings out the best co-operative, yet competitive spirit in everybody. I just hope that the weather doesn't conspire to doom it nor do city politics.
In a perfect world we'd also have a lot more refrigerated rinks around town.