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Group given $100,000 grant to upgrade rinks

Fiona Bathelt, 7, races around the busy ice rink at the Dufferin Grove

Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

After transforming her own community rink into a buzzing family hot spot, resident Jutta Mason is branching out.

Ms. Mason, who worked for years to rejuvenate the outdoor pad, now has a councillor, a parks manager and a $100,000 grant in her arsenal to take her rink fix across the city.

Dufferin Grove Park is no longer your typical barren city rink. The park, bordered by Dufferin Street to the west, between Bloor and College Streets, comes alive daily, with hockey-helmeted young people zipping around the dual ice pads in brightly coloured snowsuits. Nearby, someone is tending to the fire pit to warm chilled hands and feet.

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Inside, the clubhouse has been transformed into a gathering space. An indoor kitchen serves $1 hot chocolate ladled from the stovetop. Ingredients for vegan shepherd's pie bubble in a countertop cooker as mini pizzas are placed in the oven.

What was once an institutional change room is now a place to eat, play checkers and warm up by the wood stove before lacing up skates and hitting the ice.

"People kind of come from all over Toronto," Ms. Mason said, including many newcomers to the standard Canadian winter fun of skating and shinny.

Since starting the transformation of Dufferin Grove in the early 1990s with a group of volunteers, Ms. Mason's if-you-build-it approach has been a storied success.

On Nov. 30, the Ontario Trillium Foundation granted $100,000 over two years to the Centre For Local Research into Public Space, a small non-profit administered by Ms. Mason to support their growing "community centre without walls" concept.

"You've got to get your foot in the door so the door can't be shut," she said. "We have this fantastic resource and the problem is people have been kind of overwhelmed by how to run it."

Ms. Mason said other communities started to ask her how they could make their own rinks nicer. The ideas at Dufferin Grove have since spread to several of the city's 51 other rinks, including Wallace Emerson, just up the street, and the Campbell Avenue rink near Dupont Street and Lansdowne Avenue.

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This winter, the communities started the Public Rinks Conservancy, a "city-wide federation" that hopes to partner with municipal staff on the co-management of their rinks.

The city's east-end Greenwood Park is the newest to join the revitalized rink club. A year ago, Ms. Mason and friends helped them pass city hurdles to start a Grove-inspired campfire tradition.

"It's simple. It doesn't really cost any money and adding a bit of warmth and hot chocolate and marshmallows - it draws people together," resident Sally Bliss said. "It's a catalyst for dreaming about what else could happen at the park."

Lately, more than just average neighbourhood residents have rallied rink support. Dufferin's new councillor, Ana Bailao, is also the newest voice for rinks in her ward. She's been championing the grassroots approach to park management since she arrived in office Dec. 1.

"They have better insight than people that sit behind a desk," Ms. Bailao said. "So its very important that we bring the community's ideas, their experiences, to the table and allow them to explore and grow their goals and their experiences and not be an obstacle to them."

After learning that rinks in her ward would close Boxing Day, Ms. Bailao said she worked with city staff to ensure that Wallace Emerson, Campbell and Dufferin Grove would stay open.

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Parks and recreation manager Sandy Straw is also lauded by Ms. Mason for her support of the rink groups.

Dufferin Grove's success so far has been the result of trial and error. "We made lots of mistakes, which is a fabulous way to learn," Ms. Mason said. "But then there's always surprises."

Friday nights, for example, were particularly a challenge. Teens who weren't out on dates, Ms. Mason said, were loitering around the rink that night. So she and her neighbours fired up the outdoor ovens in 2003 and invited families, exhausted after a busy week, to swing by after work, grab a bite, get the kids on the ice, and meet up with friends.

"That worked like magic," she said. "We didn't know. We thought maybe nobody would come. But they did."

Despite recent support, smoothing the path to improved community space hasn't come without some cracks in the ice.

Last winter, after the city approved the early opening of 14 outdoor rinks, city parks and recreation staff delayed opening the pads by refusing to flood them, citing mild weather conditions. Ms. Mason thought otherwise. With the help of volunteers, she held the hose herself in the middle of the night so that Dufferin Grove could open early.

This November, the city refused to switch on the rinks' ice-making compressors until temperatures fell to between zero and 5 C for three consecutive days.

But Ms. Mason must have Mother Nature on her side, as well.

The next week, after the compressors had been turned on, no flooding started because temperatures rose to 11 C. Then it rained. And then it froze.

"Nature kind of intervened and squashed the arguments," Ms. Mason said laughing.

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