Torontonians have a tendency to cower from the winter, huddling indoors and counting the days till spring. Far better to get out and enjoy it. There is no better way to embrace a Toronto winter than skating on its wonderful network of outdoor rinks.
This city has 51 functioning artificial rinks, from winding skating trails to boarded hockey pads to the popular rectangle under the arches at Nathan Phillips Square.
That's unusual. In cities such as Calgary or Montreal, most people skate indoors in big arenas or outdoors on natural-ice rinks that are often in poor shape because of variable weather. In Toronto, with its freeze-thaw cycles, the complex of artificially cooled rinks allows skaters to enjoy a season of 12 weeks or more but still stay outside, breathing the crisp air instead of doing circles inside some barn of a rec centre.
It costs the city about $6-million a year to operate the rinks. Skating on them in public hours is free. You can go night and day. Some rinks open at 9 a.m. and close at 10 p.m.
To get a sense for this often-overlooked urban asset, I decided to skate from one side of Toronto to another in the course of a day. I did something similar a couple of summers ago, swimming eight of Toronto's beaches in a day and writing about how pleasant and under-appreciated they are. After my day on the ice, I can say the same for Toronto's rinks.
I skated 10 over the course of six daylight hours, moving from west to east. Most of the time, I was one of only a handful of people on the ice. On two rinks, I was all alone.
That is not altogether surprising. It was a weekday and most people were at school or at work. Many rinks swarm with skaters or shinny players on nights and weekends. Still, it's a shame.
Community activist Jutta Mason, the woman who helped spruce up the great Dufferin Grove rink, says the city could get a lot more traffic at its outdoor rinks by doing simple things such as selling snacks, offering skates for rent and keeping change rooms open longer.
I started my frozen odyssey at Colonel Sam Smith Park at the foot of Kipling by the lake. In 2010, the city got creative here and opened not another rink but a skating trail consisting of two linked loops. There are no boards and no chainlink fence to block the view. It's as if you are skating on a frozen stream.
The change room is the nicest in the city, a big, warm cavern with brick walls inside a 19th-century heating plant. I had just one elderly woman in figure skates for company as I did my loops at around 10 a.m.
My next stop was Prince Of Wales Park a short drive east. This is a typical single-pad outdoor rink, with boards and fencing for hockey. Its advantage is the location, on a small peninsula with a view of the downtown skyline and the white-capped waters of the lake. My company is one middle-aged guy taking shots on the empty net.
Continuing eastward I reached Queensway Park, still cluttered with piles of broken branches from the ice storm. This is a lonely little rink, with no boards but surrounded like a tennis court with a tall fence. The ice was in mediocre shape and covered with a dusting of snow. The parks building is attractive and new, built only in 2009. The washrooms are open but there is nowhere to change. I am on my own as I take to the ice. Two guys having a chat on the bench say it gets busier after school gets out, when the local youth come to play shinny.
Next stop: Rennie Park, just west of High Park. Built beside a ravine, it has a hockey rink with a small skating trail to the side. This is an ideal set-up because pleasure skaters can use the trail all day without being kicked off by hockey players. The hockey players get more exclusive ice time, too.
A little further east at Dufferin Grove Park, the smell of fresh bread is in the air as I skate. Rink workers are pulling it out of an outdoor brick oven. The cozy change room has a wood stove for extra comfort. This famous, community-driven facility draws lots of traffic to its two side-by-side rinks – one, with boards, for hockey, and another, surrounded by fencing, for pleasure skating.
The rink I stop at next, the Natrel rink at Harbourfront Centre, is privately run. It has pop music playing, skates for rent and a bar-and-grill place attached. It has the extra advantage of being right by the water, with views of the frozen harbour and Porter planes swooping in to land.
My next stop, the City Hall rink, is the most famous in Toronto, packed on evenings and weekends with tourists, families, dating couples, stumbling beginners and showboating hot dogs. With the dramatic curves of City Hall in view and the clock of Old City Hall chiming the hour, it's a great place to experience Toronto in all its variety – or, if you happen to cover city hall, to clear the words Rob Ford from your head for a few minutes. The sleek new outbuilding, part of the Nathan Phillips Square renovations, offers skate rentals and grub from a just-opened Hero Burger outlet.
Just a few minutes' walk from City Hall, you come to Ryerson Community Park. The rink, just around the corner from the busy Yonge-Dundas intersection, is a little oasis in the bustle of the Ryerson University campus. It is circular in shape, like a frozen pond, and giant rocks placed in the middle are fun to weave around as you skate. But the place has a neglected air. It was strewn with leaves and garbage when I visited, and the change rooms were closed for "construction." Despite a sign prohibiting hockey-playing, university kids tend to colonize it for shinny during the day.
Sherbourne Common, a few blocks along Queens Quay from Harbourfront, is a new rink in the centre of the creative waterfront park. But it, too, has an orphaned feeling. The washrooms are open but the other room in the modern out-building is closed – it is meant to house a snack concession one day – so the only place to lace up is outside in the wind. Though students from the new George Brown College building are all around, there was no one else on the ice when I visited in mid-afternoon.
My favourite skate was the last of my trip. Greenwood Park just went through a big refit that put a roof over the outdoor hockey rink, a first for Toronto. The idea is to protect the ice from snow and sun, allowing for less maintenance and a longer season but still providing the outdoor experience. Alongside it is a long trail like the one at Colonel Sam Smith.
As I looped around it, other skaters joined me. One was practising crossovers and going backwards. Another, a hockey player, was warming up at speed. Two little kids shuffled along, wiping out from time to time in their snowsuits, but getting right back up and moving on as their mothers watched.
It was a cold, blustery day, but, warmed by their exercise, no one seemed to mind much. My blades made a carving, scraping noise as I sped along the trail. The boom of caroming pucks rang out. Winter no longer seemed so grim.
The season ends for most outdoor rinks at the end of February. Get out and skate them while you can.
Where to find some of Toronto's top rinks
Colonel Sam Smith Park
Location: 3145 Lake Shore Boulevard West, near Kipling and Lake Shore
Facilities: Skating trail
Prince of Wales Rink
Location: 1 Third Street, near Islington and Lake Shore
Facilities: Single-pad outdoor ice rink with boards
Location: 8 Avon Park Drive, near Royal York
Facilities: Single unsupervised rink with fencing
Location: 1 Rennie Terrace, near Bloor Street West and the South Kingsway
Facilities: Hockey rink and adjacent ice path
Dufferin Grove Park
Location: 875 Dufferin Street, south of Bloor opposite Dufferin Mall
Facilities: Hockey rink and adjacent pleasure-skating rink
Location: 235 Queens Quay West, near the foot of York Street
Facilities: Harbourside pleasure-skating rink
Nathan Phillips Square
Location: 100 Queen Street West at City Hall
Facilities: Single pleasure-skating rink
Ryerson Community Park
Location: 50 Gould Street, near Yonge and Dundas
Facilities: Single, unsupervised pleasure-skating rink
Location: 61 Dockside Drive, near Queens Quay and Sherbourne
Facilities: Single unsupervised pleasure-skating rink
Location: 150 Greenwood Avenue, north of Dundas Street East
Facilities: Covered, outdoor hockey rink and adjacent skating trail