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Shelly Raftis helped start a community-made ice rink in Bennington Heights Park in 2008, just one of about 40 in the city. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)
Shelly Raftis helped start a community-made ice rink in Bennington Heights Park in 2008, just one of about 40 in the city. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

COMMUNITY

Torontonians keep the natural ice rink alive Add to ...

The thermometer reads a tolerable minus six degrees, but a stiff west wind is blowing as Kevin Talmage drags a thick, 80-foot-long hose across the snow-dusted turf of Bennington Heights Park at the south end of Leaside.

It’s 10 p.m. on Tuesday night and the park is empty, but Mr. Talmage knows that will change when skating season starts. He hooks the two-inch-wide nozzle to a temporary city water service that’s sticking up out of a hummock of wood chips.

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Water spills out across the thin layer of ice that formed earlier this past Tuesday during the season’s first flood.

“You’ve got to love doing it, because it’s bloody cold out here,” says Mr. Talmage, as his unfazed Labrador retriever chews on a frozen tennis ball at his feet.

Mr. Talmage works from home, marketing medical equipment, and is one of 10 neighbours who volunteer uncounted hours a week through the winter to see that a 30-by-18-metre patch of this park becomes a frozen ice rink.

Mr. Talmage’s son and two daughters (two hockey players and a figure skater by another measure) are the main inspiration for his efforts, but as he arcs the spray toward centre ice he also draws a direct link to his grandfather.

“My grandfather made us a rink on our pond every year when we were growing up. His tractor became a Zamboni. Yes, it broke through a few times, but by three o’clock every afternoon the rink was mint, and all our friends would come over,” he says. “He told me, ‘I’ll do this for you, but one day you do it for someone else.’”

City Hall press releases often boast of Toronto’s unmatched number of 53 outdoor artificial ice rinks. But it’s compressor-free, volunteer-driven efforts such as this that put Torontonians on ice at up to another 40 natural ice rinks across the city.

To share tips and encourage more would-be hosers to start their own rinks, Toronto Park People hosted an information night Thursday at Sorauren Park with volunteers from Parkdale. The group’s mandate is to promote citizen involvement in parks.

Co-ordinator Anna Hill points out that, in winter, that means skating rinks. “When word of mouth spreads, these rinks proliferate and people realize that they are a great way to bring people together in public spaces during the winter.”

Bennington resident Shelly Raftis helped get their rink started with a garden hose and a sprinkler in 2008. She puts in at least a shift a week a the end of a hose but is also the go-between with the city staff for a permit process that she describes as simple, a word not often used by those organizing volunteer activities in parks.

When winter comes to Bennington, city staff show up to set up the water supply, provide the hose and climb the light towers to turn around the lights that normally illuminate the park’s tennis courts.

Helpful though city staff may be, they are playing a diminished role.

Natural rinks are managed by different area supervisors, but parks department manager James Dann maintains a bird’s-eye view. He says that before amalgamation, city staff maintained many natural rinks that had been left over from a different ice age. In 1958, for example, Toronto had 81 natural rinks and only six artificial pads. As the city puts its dollars toward the more weatherproof refrigerated pads, the numbers of natural rinks melted away. Mr. Dann says that, since amalgamation, all natural rinks have been community-run.

The best display of the local approach might be at Fairmount Park, where the Icemasters, a volunteer force of 60, maintain two rinks.

The city passed on responsibility for the park near Gerrard Street East and Coxwell Avenue about 15 years ago. The Icemasters picked up the nozzle and will be out in force this Saturday, spending the day putting plywood boards up. Then the nightly rotations of six-person flooding crews will take over until lasting thaws come in early March.

Each winter, Ray Bernard is a real estate agent by day, Icemaster by night. He says that the group has become a multitalented, four season “community resource.”

“We’re called on all year long to do things like help out with barbecues and park fundraisers,” Mr. Bernard said.

Still, their specialty is watching water freeze.

While Mr. Bernard notes they count among their members Andrew Platt, Environment Canada’s Arctic research co-ordinator, he downplays the complexity of their task.

“It’s not all that scientific,” he says. “Mostly we learned on the job. If it’s cold, it’s easy. If it warms up, then opinions on what to do vary. We usually call an ‘executive meeting’ and go to the local pub to discuss.”

For better or worse, the five-day forecast is ruling out urgent executive meetings. In fact, Mr. Bernard says it’s the earliest start to the season in the last eight years.

“The guys are excited to get going,” Mr. Bernard said. “We have as much fun as the kids.”

 

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