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Toronto rec hockey leagues fight for rink time

Rob Anthony coach of the Leaside Flames "Bantam A" hockey team, gives direction to his players during their game against the Markham Islanders

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

In Toronto, the fight for skates-on-the-ice time is very much a contact sport. And for hockey parents fed up with waiting, the gloves come off now.

"It's absolutely masochistic," Rob Anthony laughs. "My wife asks me absolutely every day, 'What are you doing and why are you doing it?'"

Mr. Anthony, who has two teens in the Leaside Hockey Association, is in charge of ice allocation for the league. It's a thankless task involving negotiations for rink permits everywhere, it seems, but in arenas close to home.

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A month ago, he was driving his son from their home in Leaside to a game against a team from Forest Hill at a rink in Vaughan. They couldn't help laughing at the absurdity.

"We've got city rinks in Forest Hill, in Leaside and at North Toronto. Yet we're driving to play each other in Vaughan. What's wrong with this picture?"

If there was ever any doubt cast on the potency of hockey-parent indignation, it was put to rest last year, when a tug-of-war over limited hours on city rinks escalated into accusations of sexism, a threatened human-rights complaint and barbs swapped between boys' and girls' leagues, youth and adult players, councillors and arena directors. Who was cheating whom out of scarce ice hours?

That tussle ended with the city leaving its ice equity policy unchanged but taking a more direct role in approving allocation at arenas run by arms-length boards of directors.

So far, Mr. Anthony says, it hasn't changed much: "The only thing that's really new is there's a more in-depth application process to apply for ice with the city: They're scrutinizing who's asking … and I think that's a great idea," he said. "It certainly increased our workload. … But what we're getting, really, is private ice."

"Everybody thought the new process that Parks Forestry and Recreation put in place was really going solve that problem," says Paul Mercer, a former Leaside parent whose kids have now outgrown the minor leagues as their dad works on the hypothetical new arena's steering committee. "And what I'm hearing is that it hasn't. There just aren't enough rinks around to go around."

Toronto has fallen behind when it comes to infrastructure investment - on new transit, new sewage piping, new social housing. But it ranks especially poorly when it comes to recreational infrastructure.

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A comparison of Ontario's municipal governments shows that Toronto performs poorly when it comes to recreational facilities: The city has fewer facilities per capita than other municipalities in the province, and Toronto's are older.

On the surface, the solution is simple: Build more rinks.

In practice, however, that's easier said than done.

In Leaside, there's been a push for a new rink for a decade, a site chosen and purchased two years ago - but the facility has yet to materialize.

The city bought the land for Leaside's rink for $1.2-million in 2008 after extensive wrangling with the province and almost a decade of discussion and feasibility studies. Now, the project just might be seeing momentum after parents brought forward a business plan this summer, pledging to raise the difference if the city can front them $7-million towards the $11-million construction cost.

They have an architect, some initial designs and a promise of a loan from the city until the rink pays for itself (something its proponents swear it will do).

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If all goes well, it could be a reality as early as September, 2012. They're just a few million dollars short.

And that's the easy arena: Last year the city passed, by a five-vote majority that didn't include mayor-elect Rob Ford, an ambitious plan for an arena in the Port Lands that would stack four ice pads on top of each other. But even factoring in $34-million in federal funds and the city's capacity to go up to $25-million into debt on the project, there remains a $27-million (minimum) shortfall before the waterfront arena can be built.

From the city's perspective, it's a Gordian knot of limited resources, the exponentially ballooning cost of upkeep for aging existing facilities and a reluctance to raise fees to pay for better services. When the city proposed a fee bump in 2007 as part of its "Everyone gets to play" program, which was intended to improve access to recreational facilities, the backlash was enough to make the city drop the proposal completely. Leaside is hoping that won't happen in its case: In order to pay back the cost of the new arena, it will cost $61 more to book a prime-time hour of ice at both the old and new rinks.

"We have dedicated almost the entire capital budget at the city to maintain our existing infrastructure. We've not had the ability to grow to address the growing population or changing demographics," says Janet Davis, the outgoing chair of the city's Community Development and Recreation committee.

Inconsistency in demographic shifts across the city further complicate matters: While board-run rinks in the city centre are forced to turn community groups away, Scarborough arenas are seeing dramatically declining usage. Parks, Forestry and Recreation chair Brenda Patterson says the new centralized ice-allocation policy, which will require arenas to submit their proposals to the city's top Parks and Recreation bureaucrat for approval, will spread out public ice more evenly.

"You can't pick up the Malvern arena and move it into the middle of Toronto," she says. "When everyone fills out this application, we'll have much better information on who's seeking ice."

From an outsider's perspective, the lack of progress on what appears to be a simple issue is maddening - evidence of a city hall so mired in its own bureaucracy that even when the land is there, and even with financial boosts from provincial or federal governments eager to contribute to infrastructure projects, Toronto has trouble pulling it together.

Hence the DIY-infrastructure building, and the ambitious fundraising goals of hockey parents hell-bent on keeping their kids' teams playing close to home. Leaside lucked out with an anonymous donation of more than half-a-million dollars several months ago - but that leaves more than $2.5-million to raise before they can bring their case to council next year.

A 15-hour hockey marathon today - 12 games, back to back - is one step in that direction: Leaside parents and board members are hoping for donations, and that bringing Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke will add some star power. Forget car washes and bake sales - the next few months' fundraising effort will be along the lines of those conducted for hospitals (and, yes, arena naming rights are up for grabs).

But today's real novelty is in the games themselves: Community hockey that actually gets played in the community.

"I think that's everybody's dream in Leaside - that more than just the house league can actually play," Mr. Anthony says.

"My younger boy's played in the [Greater Toronto Hockey League]since he was eight or nine years old, but he's never had a home game."

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