Victoria skaters enjoy a rare treat on southern Vancouver Island — a chance to skate outdoors on real ice. BELOW: A worker relies on old-fashioned methods to clean the rink. Chad Hipolito photographs for the Globe and Mail.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 12, 2011
The gear was carefully laid out — T-shirt, flannel shirt, long johns, socks, extra woolen socks, gloves, winter jacket, and hockey sweater.
A thermos filled with hot chocolate was overruled in favour of a flask.
Thus fortified, it was time for that greatest of our pastimes — skating outdoors in Canada in December.
Toronto has 54 outdoor rinks, including the frozen reflecting pool at Nathan Philips Square, an ice surface large enough for games of shinny in the middle while recreational skaters complete loops on the edge.
In Ottawa, temperatures frigid enough to rival those of Ulan Bator freeze waters solid for long winter months. The Rideau Canal Skateway stretches from the Parliament Buildings to Dows Lake, home to an outdoor art gallery. The 7.8-kilometre route offers warmup shacks with snacks and hot drinks along the way. Next month, the NHL’s all-star game festivities will include a nighttime skate along the canal by headlamp-wearing fans.
Not to be outdone, Winnipeg grooms even longer trails along the Red and Assiniboine rivers, dotting the landscape with warming huts. This season, the huts along “the world’s longest skating rink” have been designed by such architectural luminaries as Frank Gehry.
On southern Vancouver Island, the opportunities to indulge so simple a pleasure are few.
It takes ingenuity, science, and a company from Ontario to create what nature neglects to provide. It is easier to find ice in cocktails at Clive’s Classic Lounge than at an outdoor rink. As the sponsoring Downtown Victoria Business Association promises: “Outdoor ice skating on REAL ICE!” It is a commodity so rare in the capital as to deserve capital letters and an exclamation point.
Lacing on a pair of CCM Tacks 670 Pro 3 Lite hockey skates, I stepped onto freshly groomed ice, took five strides, turned left, two strides, turned left, five more strides, turned left, two strides, turned left. One circuit completed.
The seasonal treat of a temporary outdoor skating rink at Centennial Square next to City Hall is tempered a bit by an ice sheet not much bigger than a goalie’s crease.
Still, the sheet has attracted a steady crowd of skaters, including the likes of former Olympic figure skater Gary Beacom. On Friday afternoon, those at the rink admired Martin Newham and Andrea Boyes, who has appeared in such shows as Disney on Ice and Holiday on Ice, as they practiced a few moves. The skaters, with the Juan de Fuca skating club, won a silver medal in the adult nationals competition in April.
“It’s such a beautiful day,” Ms. Boyes said, “and it’s good, high quality ice.”
Looking out on the scene was Emir Ishmael, 51, a visitor from Mississauga, Ont. He had flown in to check out on the ice his company, Center Ice Home Arenas, had constructed in the square.
The weather was sunny, the temperature a warming 6-degrees C. A slight, cheerful man, he wore a toque on his head. He was not worried the above-freezing temperatures would turn his ice to slush. A giant refrigeration unit chills glycol in plastic pipes beneath the surface. The unit is strong enough to keep water frozen even when the outside temperature is as high as 17-degrees C.
“We don’t want to have the rink melting,” he said.
The sheet is 36-by-56 feet (about 11-by-17 metres) with a claimed capacity of 60, which one suspects would look like a crowd scene in one of those penguin movies.
Because the surface is so small, the resurfacing has to be done by hand, a scraper pushed along followed by a tool through which water pours onto the ice, made smooth by a trailing cloth. The hot water for the Victoria rink comes by a garden hose from the lobby bar at the nearby McPherson Playhouse.
Mr. Ishmael spends his winters erecting similar rinks in the backyards of well-to-do families in Greater Toronto.
Next year, he hopes the business association will go for a larger rink, perhaps one even circling the fountain in the centre of the square.
He takes pride in his craft.
“I try to make good ice so I can enjoy other people skating,” he said in a voice in which his native Trinidad can be heard.
He came to Canada 19 years ago, taking over his brother-in-law’s business seven years after that.
He makes good ice, an achievement for someone who does not know how to skate.
“I tried it a couple of times,” he said with a shrug.
The iceman cometh without blades. Like a teetotaler tending bar, he is more interested in the theory than the practice.