Skating on Unionville's Toogood Pond is listed as the top thing to do in this village-turned-suburb on its business improvement area's official website, which also includes a photo of a pond hockey game worthy of a Tim Hortons commercial.
But those who actually want to lace up and hit the ice these days are greeted with padlocked metal barriers and a red-lettered sign that reads "Danger: Thin Ice" – even after a spate of frigid temperatures that has turned the 400-metre-long pond into a vast grey-blue pond hockey paradise, mostly covered with a fluffy layer of snow.
A stagnant, muddy brown mass in summer, in the winter Toogood Pond is a textbook-perfect setting for the national sport in its purest form, unadulterated by boards, pads, rules, keeping score, a clock or – ideally – any adults.
In the 1980s, when I grew up here, the municipality of Markham, of which Unionville is a part, used to clear and even flood the ice to make it smoother. City staff drilled holes to check the ice's thickness, and used a flag system to open the pond for skating: yellow for "skate with caution," red for "unsafe." Hot chocolate was served in a heated pavilion, which now sits deserted. At night, the ice surface was lit up. Music was played through tinny pole-mounted speakers on weekends. Shinny players and pleasure skaters holding hands with their dates had plenty of room to keep out of each other's way.
As a debate exploded this week as skaters defied a Toronto bylaw banning them from Grenadier Pond in the big city to the south, I headed to my hometown for a taste of freedom, in the form of some pond hockey. Sensible suburban Markham seemed to still list skating on Toogood Pond as an approved activity on its website, after all, and pledged that its staff still monitored the ice.
By the time I arrived, however, a Markham spokesman later told me, the website had just been edited to reflect the city's current policy of encouraging skating on other, safer non-pond outdoor rinks. The pond's safety flagpole was no longer in use.
Even here, it seems, pond hockey has fallen victim to modern "risk assessment."
Some municipalities are banning tobogganing, so it is no wonder skating on ponds is also being extinguished. There are many reasons given. Pond water in urban or suburban areas now has too much road salt in it, municipalities say, and doesn't freeze as well as it used to. Winters are (generally) warmer.
This despite the fact that the Lifesaving Society, which counts drownings and water-related deaths, sees so few caused by skating on ponds that it does not track them separately. A spokeswoman said that according to a survey of media reports, there had been one death a year for the past two years in all of Canada.
Out on Toogood, the metal barriers and warning signs were being ignored by small groups of skaters on a recent weekday afternoon, including a dad and his two sons in matching Sidney Crosby jerseys. A few dogwalkers were also out on the ice, with temperatures sitting around -9 C. Last weekend, skaters said, scores of people came out.
"I don't have too much fear of ice," Ryerson professor Helmut Brosz, 72, said as he laced up his skates. "I think you have to have a healthy respect for it."
Prof. Brosz, who not only still plays hockey but has also done "ice diving" – plunging through a hole in the ice in a wetsuit, for fun – was planning to play a little shinny while waiting to meet his four-year-old granddaughter for a skate.
Out on the ice, on a smooth square he cleared off with shovels he and a buddy brought, 25-year-old musician Andrew Spisak displayed the puck-handling he'd learned as a kid both at Toogood and while playing rep hockey in indoor arenas.
"Nothing like pond hockey," he said. "You can't really recreate it."
He still lives nearby and comes here regularly, and he said he hasn't seen any city staff test the ice or hoist a flag in the past few years. There are also fewer skaters now, he said, compared with the days of his childhood six-hour pond hockey marathons: "At that time you didn't have cellphones, so mom and dad are coming to call on you, physically. 'Andrew, Andrew, time to come in for dinner!' … And we'd be like, 'It's still light out, just another hour!'"
In a phone interview on Friday, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said given the recent controversy about pond skating, the city's policy on Toogood Pond is being reviewed. He said the city does not encourage skating at Toogood, and will post more signs warning against it. But he said nobody will be fined for skating.
The mayor said Markham stopped clearing the ice in the past year or two after parks employees identified driving out on the surface in their small plows as a hazard under Ontario's occupational safety law.
He did say he has just asked his staff to at least test the ice and put up a red flag when it is deemed completely unsafe for skating, something he thought was still the policy. But he cautioned that warmer winters, increasing road salt, residual pesticides (despite a municipal ban) and the fact that Toogood is spring-fed all make the pond's ice less reliable than it used to be. Snow cover, the result of failing to clear the pond, may also ruin the skating surface, he said.
"I feel disappointed that we can't do it any more. It's because of the safety issue. If it was safe to go out there with the [snow-clearing] equipment, believe me, we'd be doing it," Mr. Scarpitti said. "Nothing would make me happier than to be able to have staff out there, clear the pond and let people go out and enjoy the beautiful Canadian winter."