Dave Bidini is a member of Rheostatics and author of The Best Game You Can Name
"We are winter fighters," is something that Gord Downie told filmmaker Tim Thompson on Hockey Night in Canada 's 60th anniversary program. I had parroted the phrase to Finnish pop fans during a recent Nordic tour, often late at night, often at a tavern, arms wrapped around shoulders, shouting into faces. Northern. Cold-boned. Strong. Winter-minded. "This is us!" I screamed across the bar at the Hotel Jokela (and later, the Laughing Dolphin disco). People laughed, drank, fell over. We wandered through the cold, back to our freezing hotel rooms.
A few weekends ago, it's what I wanted to scream across an Irish bar in the Park Town Hotel in Saskatoon, but this time I would have been met with a different kind of laughter. In previous years, the city would have been locked in deep freeze, but on Jan. 23, temperatures scaled from –12 to –6 overnight, to 2 degrees in the morning, a sweep of warm Chinook air that lasted a handful of days. Ten days later, during our annual hockey tournament on Wolfe Island, I watched players tear off thermals and scarves and hot-pocketed gloves – the accoutrements of the shinny warrior– to skate unguarded in the relatively balmy sunshine of a spring-like winter day.
Climate change affects everyone and everything differently, and this is certainly true of hockey and its winter fighters. Our identity as Canadians is based on meeting the forces of winter head on; hockey being one of our cries of survival, a cry that tells everyone else we're alive – sure, mild winters have happened, but they were an oddity. The last decade's weather pattern alone paints a melted picture: It's clear we're on a warming climate trend.
So a lot has changed for those who like to play outside – from the lack of reliable surfaces to perilous conditions across lakes and rivers to the slow abandonment of shinny. We can already read the tea leaves: winters with gluey ice surfaces, corners worn by warmth and rain, and too much time spent walking back inside with your skates and gloves hooked over your stick after watching the pelting December rain ruin the neighbourhood rink. Winters used to mean snow boots gliding across snow-caked street-hockey streets, or skates carving hieroglyphics into hard city pads. Now it's a freakish outlier whenever the season descends hard, as it should, as it used to be.
John Pomeroy, the director of hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan, told me that our proverbial frozen ponds may never be the same: "For rinks to freeze, you need cold frozen ground. The rain makes it worse, and now we are getting more melt events than ever before, with almost no snow packs in southern parts of the province… Here, you don't expect to be splashed by cars in December, but the rain and warmth has wreaked havoc with everything."
The effect this has on youth, and on youths playing hockey, can't be quantified. But with the organized game losing numbers to various forces – Xbox indolence, a challenge from emerging sports, the rising cost of new equipment and high-level minor hockey membership – warm winters only weaken the game's changing condition. Kids will play less; we'll play less; I'll play less. Less playing weakens society, culture and people.
It's true that the game has bloomed in many places where you don't usually play hockey outdoors – parts of British Columbia, the U.S. Southwest, the Pacific Northwest. But should it be forced exclusively inside, precious ice time will be filled and there will be less opportunity for you and me, which means less opportunity for emerging elements of the sport – women's hockey, adult hockey, sledge hockey – that have already had to scrap for late-night ice because of the chronic shortage of city rinks. This is to say nothing of more northern places where natural indoor ice can no longer be sustained.
During a trip to northern Saskatchewan a few years back, the fall had proven too warm to make proper ice, and I was told of a funding drive to get refrigeration for the building in order to make artificial ice, sustaining a hard surface no matter the warmth of the air. But money for freon gas piping means less money for school or food-drive programs. Less hockey means less of other things, and the effect is always more profound in smaller places.
This coming June, the first six or seven NHL draft picks will be players from places other than Canada. The first Canadian player picked will, possibly, be dual citizen Jakob Chykrun, a defenceman born in Boca Raton, Fla. This unprecedented draft – there could be fewer Canadians taken in the top 30 than at any time in history – might be cyclical, but it might be related, in however a tangential way, to climate-change abuses of previous governments.
Fewer kids are playing for longer because there is less ice because there are warmer winters. If Justin Trudeau wants to contribute to the legacy of play in Canada, this should be part of his mandate: to save hockey for those who may never know what it is to play outside.