Skates are sharpened, sticks are taped and a group of dedicated dads and moms are crossing their fingers in a collective wish that the weather holds. Mother Nature calls the shots when it comes to a favourite Canadian pastime – playing hockey on an outdoor rink – and the folks who are responsible for creating and maintaining two local rinks are already hard at work, shoveling and flooding as the weather conditions dictate.
“The ice is skateable now,” said Ray Bernard, Co-Director of the Fairmount Park Ice Masters, a group of approximately 60 volunteers who look after the large rink in the Gerrard Street East and Coxwell Avenue neighbourhood. “If we’re lucky, it will go till the end of March.”
The Fairmount Park rink was originally built in the 1960s and was run by the City of Toronto, but Bernard said that slowly, over the years, it has been handed back to the community.
“Twenty years ago it was just a few dads that got it going,” he said.
That first meeting of the dads evolved into the formation of the Ice Masters, a board-run group of volunteers who work in shifts around the clock, manning garden hoses and shoveling after a snowfall. The group even produced its own band, The Lost Boys, who play at fundraisers year-round, including the upcoming Winter Fest on Feb. 2 at the neighbouring Bowmore Public School.
“They’ve become our fundraising arm,” said Bernard. “They go out and play music at barbecues in the summer and all the funds get donated back to the Ice Masters.”
The money raised is spent on the rink’s current needs.
“Last year we spent $1,000 on infrastructure. We bought some safety netting and other equipment. The snowblower was donated to us three or four years ago. The city provides the lights and the boards but as the equipment needs replacing, we just buy it on our own. We don’t have a set budget. We just replace things as needed,” Bernard said.
Nestled under the trees in the Glen Stewart ravine is a rink tended for the last 11 years by Thomas Neal, who this year started working on New Year’s Day.
“Every year I have to look at and assess the temperatures,” he said. “In a normal winter we’ll get a month out of it.”
That rink, too, was originally a City-run project that fell by the wayside one year due to cutbacks. That’s when Neal stepped in.
“The city used to turn hoses on and just let the water run and freeze,” he said, and Neal and his then three-year-old son enjoyed skating there.
“The next year we went and it wasn’t there. I asked (then Councillor) Sandra Bussin, ‘When is the City going to put the water in?’, and she said they wouldn’t be doing it due to the cutbacks. That was after amalgamation. So I asked her if I could do it, and she said ‘Yes, if you want to’, so all the neighbours got together and started it.”
Neal, who is assisted by a couple of friends, goes out to the rink about 6 a.m. each morning to clear it of snow and flood it, weather permitting.
“I try to get it shoveled as quickly as I can so the kids can skate after school,” he said.
Both rinks offer hockey on one side and pleasure skating on the other. In Glen Stewart the Christmas lights are up and the hockey side is illuminated by a large spotlight. The Fairmount Park lights are on until 11 p.m. or midnight and the rink itself is accessible 24 hours.
“We don’t restrict access or time,” said Bernard. “If someone want to use it we make it available.”