Skip to main content

The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places - the school, the church and the skating rink - but our real life was on the skating rink. - Roch Carrier, The Hockey Sweater

Late fall, and tears are falling on the most famous backyard in all of Canada.

Great, fat, warm raindrops plunk onto the cover of the swimming pool that sits where, in other Novembers in another century, a father would be laying down the first ice and a small, blond boy would be sitting, fully dressed in his hockey equipment, waiting for the signal to begin the season that once so defined this country.

Wally's Coliseum is no more.

The backyard rink that Walter Gretzky so lovingly built here in Brantford - using a lawn sprinkler for the base ice, then painstakingly building the "glass" skating surface with a slow-flowing hose - is now a fenced-in swimming pool.

It was here where three-year-old Wayne Gretzky took his first turns and first falls. It was on Wally's Coliseum that the 10-year-old who scored 378 goals for the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers - who was a national figure by the age of 11, who went on to hold or share 61 National Hockey League records - learned the game he would eventually transform.

Wayne Gretzky became that sensation not through structured 50-minute practice sessions, but, as he has said, "right in my own backyard," doing whatever he felt like doing.

Out here, there was only one rule to the game: Get your homework done first. Walter Gretzky, standing in the light rain with a hand on the pool fence, shakes his head at the memory of his first son's dedication. "He would be out here hour after hour," Mr. Gretzky remembers, "twisting in and out between pylons we made from Javex bottles. He used to tie a can off a string and hang it in the net and see how many times he could hit it. He used to pay kids a nickel or a dime to play goalie for him."

And he kept at it. Mr. Gretzky laughs his crinkly, eyes-closed chuckle as he recalls the night he got so caught up watching television that he forgot all about the little boy in the backyard. And how Phyllis Gretzky came storming downstairs in her nightgown screaming that it was five minutes to midnight on a school night and the boy was still out there twisting among the makeshift pylons: " What are the neighbours going to think ?"

But things change. Mr. Gretzky is 69 now, so remarkably recovered from a 1991 aneurysm that a movie, Waking Up Wally, was made of his story. The five Gretzky kids who learned to skate on this rink - Wayne, Keith, Glen, Brent and sister Kim - are all grown up now. And the "long, long seasons" of Roch Carrier's childhood are all but gone.

"You can't make a rink like this any more because the winters aren't cold enough," Mr. Gretzky says. "If you're lucky, you might have two weeks, maybe three weeks. But you can't get three or four weeks in a row of cold. You get one day cold, next day warm. You can't get a rink going."

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the family skated in the backyard of the home where Walter Gretzky still lives - sadly, Phyllis lost her long battle against lung cancer two years ago - and skated, as well, at the old Gretzky family farm at nearby Canning, where Kim and her young family live today. It was at that farm, at a 1957 wiener roast, that 18-year-old Walter first met 15-year-old Phyllis.

Mr. Gretzky recalls that, as a boy, he could skate for miles on the Nith River, which flows by that old farm - "skate until you hit rapids," he laughs - but lately the river rarely freezes over. And even when it does, you wouldn't dare risk stepping out on it.

"Winters are warmer now," he says. "There's no ice."

Ce n'est pas l'hiver

There is, of course, still ice - and still backyard rinks in many regions of Canada - but winter is not what it once was, with rare exceptions. And most assuredly, in Southwestern Ontario, not what it was back in 1932 when not only was the ice thick on the Nith, but Niagara Falls froze solid.

In many parts of this vast country these days, Quebec songwriter Gilles Vigneault's famous line, Mon pays … c'est l'hiver, seems increasingly out of line. My country is not winter - at least not winter as it used to be.

The new Dominion that British prime minister William Gladstone once dismissed as the land "of perpetual ice and snow" was at one time so sensitive about its bitterly cold winters that the federal government banned the words "frost" and "cold" from brochures aimed at prospective immigrants - allowing only the word "buoyant" to be used when describing the Canadian off-season.

Today, buoyant rather accurately describes the weather in many of the more populated parts of the country.

It is a reality that frustrates Sarah Vaillancourt, one of the rising young stars in Canadian women's hockey. The 22-year-old Olympic gold medalist is on a hockey scholarship to Harvard University and each Christmas has returned to her home in Sherbrooke, Que., hoping to skate, once again, on the natural ice of her childhood - only to discover it is no more.

Her father, Robert, a former junior player, built a backyard rink where Sarah and older brother Jann, who also played junior hockey, fell in love with the national game.

"My Dad would come home at lunch," Ms. Vaillancourt says from her current home in Boston, "and I'd be waiting for him at the door with my stick and skates. He'd eat fast and we'd go out on the rink for 20 minutes."

She began skating when she was 2 on the backyard rink in Sherbrooke and on the lake where her father would clear off a large skating area by the family cottage.

She was so captivated by the sheer magic of gliding on hard ice that she would sneak out in the evenings and skate for hours by herself, her mother furious when she caught her skipping homework: "Now, I tell her, 'See, Mom, it was worth it.'"

There is a profound difference, the young hockey star believes, between indoor and outdoor rinks. "You feel so relaxed on an outdoor rink," she says. "You're back to the essentials - where it all began. It just makes me feel closer to my great passion."

As a child, she had a game she would play inside her head as well: She would imagine herself wearing the Team Canada jersey and being chosen to take the shootout in the World Championships. Two years ago in Linkoping, Sweden, the fantasy became reality when, much to her surprise, the then-20-year-old was selected to take the first shot in a shootout against Team U.S.A. for the gold medal.

"I was so nervous," she remembers. "My heart was racing. I knew I had to get into my zone, so I pretended I was once again on that outdoor rink all by myself. And it calmed me right down.

"I took the shot and scored."

Unfortunately, she was the only Canadian who scored that day, as the Americans went on to a rare victory against their Canadian rivals.

This Christmas, once again, Sarah Vaillancourt will return home in search of some natural ice, to feel the wind in her face and perhaps, after a while, once again to feel nothing at all in her toes.

This year, more than some recent ones, she has hope. But even if there is ice to be found, it will not likely stay for long.

"It's sad," she says. "Not just for hockey players. But for everybody."

A place to play

Besides Wally's Coliseum, Canada has produced several backyard rinks that are frozen forever in the imagination: Roch Carrier's churchyard rink from The Hockey Sweater; the little rink in Floral, Sask., where Gordie Howe took his first turns in an old pair of skates a neighbour had dropped off; the rink by the barn in Viking, Alta., that turned six Sutter brothers into NHLers; the big rink on the sod farm in Thunder Bay that produced the four promising Staal brothers …

It is difficult to find a Canadian hockey player who does not wax nostalgically about what those little rinks meant to them as youngsters.

"The rink was my getaway, my little bit of heaven," Eric Lindros wrote in his autobiography of the backyard rink his father, Carl, built each winter in London, Ont. "If ever I had a problem in school I would get out onto the rink and blow it off. Being on the rink was the best time of day."

"Everybody had a backyard rink, it seemed," says Toronto Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice, who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

He recalls three games being played at once on the larger high-school rink just across the street from the Maurices' own backyard-ice surface. The bigger, skilled players would be playing up and down the entire ice, smaller kids would be playing their own game up and down the middle and those just learning the game would stick to the less-busy fringes.

"It was such a huge part of growing up," Mr. Maurice says. "There are so many things you just don't see any more. You don't see kids going to school with skates over their shoulders. You can't even if you wanted to. Skates have sharp blades. And sticks wouldn't be allowed.

"My parents couldn't see the rink we played on. They just knew we were there."

But times change, he admits with a sheepish smile: "I wouldn't let my own kids do that today."

Mr. Maurice believes that certain skills develop on an outside, natural-ice surface that would never develop so well practising on indoor rinks under the guidance of coaches.

"There was a difference in how you learned to handle the puck," he says. "If you wanted it, you had to get it. If you wanted to work with it, you had to keep it."

But there was something else - the pure, clear joy of play.

"That," Ottawa Senators forward Chris Neil says, "was where you learned to have fun."

Finding a shortcut

By his own admission, Brendan Lenko is not much of a skater.

Nor - despite the latest predictions that even the Arctic may be ice-free in our lifetimes - is the mechanical engineer completely sold on the notion of global warming and man's contribution to the dramatic climate change that has so far defined the 21st century.

But he's not going to knock a trend he surprisingly finds himself riding. "We're the ones saving the backyard rink," he says.

As president of Custom Ice in Burlington, Ont., Mr. Lenko can now claim - eyebrows arching with a touch of uncertainty - to have sold ice to Eskimos. "I don't know if you're allowed to say that," he says.

Politically incorrect, perhaps, but it's correct all the same to say that Custom Ice recently put one of its ultramodern ice surfaces down in Sanikiluaq, Nunavut. The locals were finding that, with increased warming and spring days stretching longer, they were unable to keep natural ice the way they once could.

Mr. Lenko sells his product as "a new approach to ice rinks." The backyard rink is still possible, he says, but instead of Walter Gretzky's sprinkler and garden hose, the solution today is found in modern refrigeration technology. And instead of Mr. Gretzky's cost (he once had to replace a sprinkler after it froze solid and broke when he tried to free it), a Custom Ice rink in the backyard will run anywhere from the basic kit of $25,000 all the way to the ultrasupreme virtual-NHL backyard rink at $700,000.

Instead of the two to three weeks of good outdoor skating that Walter Gretzky bemoans is today's reality, Mr. Lenko's company says it is possible to keep a perfect outdoor rink running for five months of the year - as long as the outdoor temperature doesn't rise above 10 degrees Celsius.

It is a pitch that has appealed mightily to the wealthy. Mr. Lenko's company has installed outdoor rinks for such former National Hockey League stars as Pat LaFontaine, Wendel Clark and Curtis Joseph, as well as one well-known, retired Canadian politician. The most elaborate of all outdoor rinks was built for U.S. comedian Denis Leary, a native of Massachusetts.

In eight years, Custom Ice has moved from a garage operation to one with 30 employees, with Mr. Lenko recently heading over to China to negotiate one deal and rinks either up or planned for in Sweden and Spain.

The idea began when Dave Gagner - an NHL veteran whose teams included the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks - was looking for some way to keep a rink up and running in "buoyant" Oakville, Ont., where Mr. Gagner intended to retire and raise his family.

That first boarded-in rink in his backyard became the incubator for a number of astonishing young players, including his 18-year-old son, Sam, already starring with the Edmonton Oilers, and 17-year-old John Tavares of the Oshawa Generals, who is virtually guaranteed to be the No.1 pick in the 2009 amateur draft.

Mr. Lenko and Mr. Gagner formed a partnership and began developing their product, soon moving to facilities in Burlington's industrial area. They designed and built compressors for refrigeration and experimented with tubing until they had systems that could be either embedded in a permanent base or rolled out each fall and rolled up each spring for those who wish ice in winter and lawn in summer.

They found their market, curiously, fitted almost perfectly within the reach of five of the Original Six NHL teams - Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit - with Montreal and its colder winters the one exception.

Dave Gagner, who currently coaches with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, is, not surprisingly, a passionate advocate of the outdoor rink. Yet even though he was born 43 years ago in Chatham, Ont., he had never been on natural outside ice until he played on Canada's Olympic team and the team booked a practice on an outdoor rink in Germany.

In watching the likes of his son, Sam, and John Tavares play on the outdoor rink, he now thinks he missed something worthwhile. "They know tricks I couldn't possibly teach them," he says.

"I spent 15 years in the NHL and in the NHL you learn to play 'safe' - not to get scored upon. You learn the 'gems' of the game out on an outdoor rink in an unstructured setting."

Like Mr. Lenko, he says it is only coincidence that the company happened along as talk of global warming and climate change became part of everyday conversation.

"I didn't know what it was called," he says. "I only knew you couldn't keep a rink without standing out in your yard with a hose in your hand every day.

"All we're doing is trying to cheat the weather a little bit."

The rhythm of the year

The most famous natural-ice surfaces in Canada produced NHL players. The most famous one in the United States produced a collection of essays - Jack Falla's Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds.

Mr. Falla, who has written for Sports Illustrated, has kept a rink going behind his Natick, Mass., home every winter since 1982. He put up plywood boards and lined the rink - about a third the size of an NHL ice surface - with clear plastic sheeting, then waited for the first cold front before heading out with the hose.

It was, he says, an education by trial and error - too much water created ice that wasn't strong enough to support an adult skater - but eventually he became a local ice master. The Falla rink, which he calls the Bacon Street Omni, became a fixture in Natick and in an increasing number of publications where Mr. Falla would wax poetic about its glories.

When he put those essays into a collection, Bobby Orr offered to write the foreword, saying the backyard rink was, in his opinion, "the heart and soul of hockey."

Now, Mr. Falla, at 64, finds himself at the cusp of his 25th consecutive season as ice maker and Omni manager. The kids have grown up and started their own families. He has debated "retirement," but each fall some bug grabs him, the way a spring bug grabs golfers the moment they first see grass.

"For me," he says, "it really is part of the rhythm of the year."

He knows, however, that it is not the same. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the rink was in place by the third week of December and ran, with slight thaw setbacks, through the rest of winter. Since the turn of the century, he has had ice before Christmas only twice. Last year, the first skate of the season, the latest ever, was Jan. 21. He shut things down on Feb. 10, his earliest closing date ever.

In the best years, 60 or more people would be on the Bacon Street Omni. Last year, only 16 people went for a skate.

"I know from 24 years' experience that we have fewer skate-able days now than we did when I started the rink," Mr. Falla says. "But even if I knew we'd have skate-able ice for only one weekend, I'd still put up the rink. Bottom line on a backyard rink - or at least on my backyard rink - is that it connects me with the people I love."

Despite the constant talk of global warming, he once again had his boards up in early November, waiting for the first cold front to announce the start of the 2007-08 skating season. No fancy refrigeration units and imbedded piping for Mr. Falla, who frowns on what he sees as little more than an artificial-ice indoor arena without the roof and walls.

"Maintaining and building it is half the fun," he says. As for those elaborate ice surfaces, he wonders aloud: "Aren't you getting awfully close to tennis?"

Mr. Falla's motivation has never been to produce future hockey stars - though the game is regularly played on the Omni - but to provide some alternative activity for an already active family.

"Some people see their rinks as a springboard for getting ahead in the game," he says, "but my rink was never just for that. It was to give my over-scheduled kids some time on their own."

His reward, he says, came only this past year when he happened to overhear his son, Brian, now 36, talking about the Omni to a visitor.

"It's my father's legacy," Brian said.

It was, Jack Falla says, the only thanks he ever needed to hear.

Glass-ice memories

With the warm autumn rain still falling outside, two of Walter Gretzky's less-famous sons - Keith, 40, and Glen, 38 - sit around talking about their father's legacy and their own recollections of Wally's Coliseum.

They talk about the flood lights their dad would string above the ice, how he would so carefully mould the banks so they froze hard and could serve as boards. They laugh about the wood-framed nets he built. But mostly they talk about the ice.

"Great ice," Glen says. "Absolutely great."

"Glass ice," Walter adds. "Not bumpy at all."

"I remember the shovelling," Keith laughs. "We were the ones who had to shovel it off. We used to have snowbanks higher than the fences."

But no longer. The snow comes and goes these days, banks rise and fall. It is, of course, still possible to build outdoor rinks and, in deepest winter, even possible to hold outdoor shinny tournaments in various parts of North America.

But all bets are off when it comes to sustaining an outdoor rink from first cold snap to final thaw in a country where, for the most part, the mercury in outdoor thermometers now dances as much as it shrinks.

Walter Gretzky's own memories include the precise point in the yard, pool included, where he established his rink each winter. He recalls the best years and the funny moments, like the time he asked Phyllis to drop in to Canadian Tire to pick up a new lawn sprinkler in 10-below weather and they treated her like "she was crazy."

The clarity of Mr. Gretzky's recollection here is significant, as his memory was largely deleted the fall day in 1991 when he was painting out at the farm and suddenly went dizzy. In one of fate's more cruel moments, the most famous hockey father in the world lost his entire remembrance of his famous son's hockey life. He lost each one of the four Stanley Cups in Edmonton; he lost the NHL records, the all-star games, the Canada Cups; he even lost the infamous 1988 trade to Los Angeles.

"It's like I was asleep for 10 years," he once told me. "It's all kind of like a dream."

The neurosurgeon who saved him after the aneurysm, Dr. Rocco de Villiers, told him that he would one day come to remember those things "that really mattered" to him.

At one point, purely as an experiment, the doctor played a small game to demonstrate how Mr. Gretzky's memory could suddenly jump back without him having to wander aimlessly inside his own head in search of it.

Dr. de Villiers told Mr. Gretzky that each time he clapped his hands, Mr. Gretzky had to tell him the first memory that came to mind.

Clap! He remembered being in church the day of his mother's funeral.

Clap! He remembered one of the hymns sung at his father's funeral.

Clap! He remembered the length of the train - "about three-and-a-half miles long," he giggled - on Janet Jones's wedding dress the summer day in 1988 she and Wayne married in Edmonton.

The doctor was impressed. "Religion must be very important to you," he said. "All your important memories involve church in some way or another."

Here in Brantford on this rainy, late-fall day, no clapping is required. Mr. Gretzky remembers every possible detail of the backyard rink, the other place of worship for his family.

A precious memory, as clear and solid as that "glass ice" that is, sadly, becoming mostly memory for the country itself.

Roy MacGregor is a Globe and Mail columnist based in Ottawa.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe