March 9, 2012

Climate change threatens rinks

PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — This morning, as I do most mornings once the city puts up the boards for my local outdoor rink, usually in late November, I checked the condition of the ice.

It's been a few years since I retired from making our own backyard rink due to the increasing ratio of work versus usage. So the rink two blocks away in the park in front of the museum on the Plains of Abraham is the focus.

And on this sunny and cold early March morning, the state of the freshly watered ice is deemed to be good to excellent.

Despite the glorious conditions today, my ice-observer sense tells me the rink is doomed and likely will not survive the week, what with above-freezing temperatures and rain in the forecast. If that is the case, the 2011-12 outdoor skating season in Quebec City will be remembered as better than average, with no major damaging melts and a relatively early pre-Christmas start.

In other parts of the land, the outdoor skating this winter has not been so hot — or cold, to be more precise. Indeed, the troubled state of the skating season has been in the news lately. Researchers at McGill and Concordia universities in Montreal released a study showing that outdoor rinks in many parts of Canada may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to greenhouse gases and climate change.

This conclusion may seem sadly obvious to people in mostly the western sweep of the country where this winter has been little more than a concept.

The study provides evidence that "the observed warming of winter temperatures in Canada has had a deleterious effect on the outdoor skating season. Many locations across the country have seen significant decreases in the length of the OSS (outdoor skating season), as measured by the number of cold winter days conducive to the creation of rink ice."

The scientists don't take the impact of this shift lightly: "The ability to skate and play hockey outdoors is a critical component of Canadian identity and culture. Wayne Gretzky learned to skate on a backyard skating rink; our results imply that such opportunities may not be available to future generations of Canadian children."

Egad. Forget eroding shorelines, steaming tundra, disappearing wildlife habitat, floods, fires and infestations. Global warming is endangering the Canadian hockey player. Citizens may wonder if that kind of threat doesn't get the hockey-loving, Kyoto-shunning prime minister motivated to act, what will?

One wonders whether anyone has done the counterpoint study to the skating-season research, the one that looks at how many modern NHL players have actually spent a significant amount of their formative hockey time on outdoor rinks. Our own family's empirical evidence, derived from having a child in minor hockey from age 6 to 16, suggests that it's not a big factor.

The average little player these days is so locked into a weekly schedule of practices, games and tournaments that outdoor hockey, as liberating as it is from the constant surveillance (and criticism) of coaches and parents, might not be the first choice for down time.

While outdoor rinks may be melting from the Canadian experience, a company in Levis, across from Quebec City, is leaping into the vacuum. Two former professional players, Patrick Couture and Yannick Tremblay, have created in a hotel parking lot what they are calling the first outdoor arena in North America.

The rink features NHL regulation ice made by a high-power refrigeration system, change rooms in portable trailers, full lighting and protective glass, even post-game beer service. It's been the site of the first "winter classic" for a top flight midget league, which was deemed a huge success.

Couture and Tremblay hope the concept, involving completely portable equipment, will catch on and even offer communities a less costly alternative to building a covered bricks and mortar arena.

As for me — someone who didn't skate on an indoor rink until I was about 10 and still wince at the memory of frozen feet — I still treasure the outdoor skating experience and plan to enjoy it as long as the outdoor skating season allows.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at