Column: Empty hockey rinks in Canada? What’s the world coming to?

By Kevin Miller

The kids know it; the amateurs know it; even the NHL knows it: there’s nothing quite so fundamentally Canadian as a game of hockey on an outdoor rink in temperatures so low that the phrase “sub-zero” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The problem, though, is when the temperature gets too low, the people who would normally be outside carving up the ice head inside to warm up.

As long as the temperature stays cool enough, (a relative term to be sure) McNabb Park — at the corner of Gladstone and Bronson — looks like a postcard. It’s late in the evening and the lights around the rink are turned on, giving the ice a reflective glow. A fresh snowfall covers the ground, leaving the pine trees frosted in a layer of white.

Drifting through the air are the sounds of wood slapping against ice, the scratch of skates as a toque-clad player picks up speed for a breakaway, and the constant chatter about hockey.

The rinks seem to be in constant use. This evening at McNabb, 14 people in their mid-twenties are playing a game of pick-up without a goalie — who tend to go missing in action in outdoor play.

The side rink, lacking the boards, size and nets of its larger companion, is generally home to the younger skaters. A couple of hastily thrown hats and gloves make impromtu goal posts at either end of the ice, but rest assured, the competition is just as intense among the tykes.

Francis Savage, a father who brings his kids and dogs to the park to let all of them run around and burn off some energy, has had to clear the ice a couple of times to get it game-ready, but says it’s worth it.

“It’s always in pretty good shape,” he said, “but a few days ago when we had a lot of snow we had to shovel it off, but it was coming down faster than we could shovel it.”

Two days after all the action, however, the rinks are virtually empty. Only a few die-hards keep up the vigil, taking advantage of the empty ice to practice their skills.

So what could possibly happen in two days to drive the crowds away?

Apparently, once the mercury drops too low, the players prefer the comforts of watching the pros from the warmth of their heated homes to the chill of playing in mid-January Ottawa.

Canadians have become fair-weather hockey players indeed.

Even the vigour of youth can’t overcome minus-30 temperatures (with the windchill factor, of course), leaving the rinks empty and solemn.

It’s a shame that such a great resource should lie empty for the lack of a few more layers of clothing.

So consider this your wake-up call Centretown: the rinks are there and ready to be used now. They all disappear once it gets wamer outside. Just throw on an extra pair of long johns and two pairs of socks, and get out there to take advantage of the rinks while you can.

The weather will be warm again soon enough and the ice will be replaced by the green grass of spring. Right about then you’ll be wishing the ice was back, no matter how low the temperature.