The Bank of Canada may have a firm grip on interest rates, but it cannot have much of a grasp on what truly interests Canadians.
Otherwise, it would never have let the back of the five-dollar bill melt away.
From early 2002 to late 2013, the back of that beloved blue note held a charming illustration of a backyard hockey rink – no picture of the Queen, no reference to God – where four children are playing shinny and another is learning to skate while holding the hand of a proud parent.
On Nov. 7, 2013, that image was replaced by an astronaut floating in space.
Outer space is not where Canadians live – certainly not in winter. As the quote from Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater so perfectly put it on the five spot the bank killed off: “Our real life was on the skating rink.”
Carrier was writing about Sainte-Justine, Que., in the 1940s. But it could have been Lakehurst, Ont., in 2015 where, this week, Garry Hall – with the help of his father and a neighbour – has his backyard rink up and running once again for the local kids to enjoy.
“It’s a labour of love,” Hall says of his small masterpiece. “I can’t imagine a winter without it. It’s part of who I am.”
And it has been a part of who we are since before we were even Canada. More than two centuries have passed since Thomas C. Haliburton, the creator of the Sam Slick adventures, heard the boys of King’s College School “racin’, yellin’, hollerin’, and whoopin’ like mad with pleasure” as they skated on Long Pond in rural Nova Scotia.
Connect that backyard rink, pond or slough with what would evolve into the national game and that little ice surface takes on iconic status.
Wayne Gretzky always claimed he became the player he would turn into “right in my own backyard,” stickhandling pucks around Javex bottles his father, Walter, would set up in the Brantford, Ont., outdoor rink the five Gretzky kids all called “Wally’s Coliseum.” In Victoriaville, Que., it was the “Béliveau Forum,” where young Jean learned to stickhandle, Arthur Béliveau building the rink and his wife Laurette laying industrial-strength linoleum under the kitchen table so Jean could keep his skates on while eating.
Tom Wickenheiser, who built his backyard rink in Shaunavon, Sask., once recalled a night in December, 1985, when he could not sleep for a mysterious knocking sound from outside. It was after midnight and minus-20 C, and when he went to check he realized seven-year-old Hayley had slipped out of her bed, dressed in full gear and was out working on her shot in the dark.
These are the tales that take on mythological status, but there are backyard rink stories told every winter across this land, many just as charming even if the children involved do not end up wining Stanley Cups and Olympic gold medals.
Perhaps the Bank of Canada dumped the old fiver because it had come to believe, as many have, that climate change has already doomed the backyard rink. Well, they could at least have waited, for last winter was as good as it gets for ice, and this winter, despite a Christmas thaw in much of the country, many backyard rinks opened earlier than they had for years.
Nestor Kelba wrote from Calgary to say the Kelba neighbourhood rink is now into its 33rd winter, adding: “This year’s ice is looking like the best ever,”
Kelba was one of nearly 70 Globe and Mail readers who responded to a call for photographs and stories of backyard rinks across the country. The response was impressive and inspirational, and for anyone who thinks that this Canadian tradition is as doomed as playing road hockey with horse apples, they should think again.
Many rinks are simple – pound down the snow, flood with a hose, banks for boards and old boots for goal posts – but some are almost as extravagant as the rinks where top teams play. Boards are common but so, too, are rinks with curved corners just like NHL arenas have. There are outdoor rinks with blue lines and red lines painted into the ice, faceoff circles, creases and floodlights. There are even backyard rinks with board advertising, PA systems and pumped-in music for romantic evening skates.
Simple or extravagant, there can be no doubting that a great many Canadians believe a backyard rink is a rite of passage for their children. Julie Saunders of Telkwa, B.C., wrote to say, “We only went to look at this house because it advertised an ice rink in the yard.” They liked what they saw, and bought.
Jason York played 757 NHL games with five teams before retiring back to Ottawa, where he had once played defence for the Senators. Now with two sons and a daughter in hockey, he has one of the area’s most extravagant home rinks, complete with sound system, curved boards, nets and a custom change room. But what he liked best about the rural property he moved into after leaving hockey was the hot-water tap off the back of the house.
“Now,” York says, “I can do a hot-water flood.”
It is difficult to imagine a more Canadian measure of a residence, but do not think that it is necessary to be born Canadian to suffer, or enjoy, this particular winter madness. Fernando Alves of Ottawa was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has been in Canada for less than a decade, and yet for the past three years he has built and maintained a rink – complete with lights, boards, goal creases and even curling houses – for his Ottawa neighbourhood to enjoy.
While it is entirely possible to have a backyard rink virtually for free each winter, most involve small costs. Shovels and hoses need replacing. Light bulbs burn out.
Jan Krahenbil of Winnipeg admits to a bit of a marital spat the day her husband Craig – “Best Dad ever,” she calls him – arrived back from the local Canadian Tire with $400 worth of electrical cords and floodlights. But, she says, having seen the joy 11-year-old daughter Chelsea gets by practising on that backyard rink and playing for two different teams, one girls, one mostly boys, she says “I now agree it was money well spent.”
Few, on the other hand, go as far as Justin Lachapelle of Saint-Lazare, Que., who has a fabulous outdoor rink with lines and a perfect Montreal Canadiens logo painted into the ice. Two years ago, Lachapelle turned an old golf cart into a “Zamboni” for flooding the ice. “This year,” he boasts, “I converted my son’s play structure into a 1,000-litre water tower so that I can water the rink in under one minute!”
The differences in time required to be up and running are, at times, breathtaking. Sam Shariff, who lives in Calgary, says he and his helpers can have his rink set up and ready for the first flood in four or five hours.
Rob Seguin of Winchester, Ont., on the other hand, says he began organizing and planning for the 2014-15 season the moment last year’s rink melted away. “It took me four months,” he says, “to purchase, cut, paint, plan, dig, shovel, level my backyard and begin to assemble components of the rink before our first skate this November.”
The usual initial motive is to have a place for family to play, though backyard rinks seem rarely, if ever, restricted to those who actually live on the property. Kevin Marks of Thunder Bay builds a rink each winter with the help of his father Bob, and the rink has expanded to a point where Kevin purchased extra property to accommodate its growth.
“All the kids in the neighbourhood come over to skate,” Kevin says. “It’s the best babysitter.”
In Swastika, a small community in Northern Ontario, budget cuts in the early 1990s meant that there were no municipal funds to maintain the local rink. But that did not spell the end to free skating. “A neighbour and I decided that we would try our hand at making ice to keep the rink going,” Ken Kryklywy says. “Twenty years later I’m still experimenting with my flooding techniques to try to achieve the perfect sheet of ice.”
They do it for their children and for the community, but there are also those who do it for a good cause. Todd Churchill of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, Nfld., began his backyard rink following the 2011 birth of his son Carter, who was born with complications including deafness, and was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
A year later, Churchill began his “Reasons for the Rink” project, building a huge backyard rink for which he sells board advertising to those agreeing to support several charities. Local police and firefighters have pitched in with charity games, and so far, more than $105,000 has been raised to give back to those organizations that were there when Carter needed them.
Usually, however, the motives are far simpler. Geoff Clarke has been erecting a rink in his Edmonton backyard for seven years now, so that the two Clarke boys, Matt and Jack, and as many neighbourhood children as like can skate and play for free.
“Believe it or not,” Clarke says, “my boys will choose to skate in minus-20 C over playing video games. Sometimes they eat supper with their skates on and head right back out to play under the floodlights.
“I know one day they will be too big for our backyard rink, but I’ll keep doing it until they are. At that time I plan to hand down my boards to a family with young kids looking for a backyard rink.”
Just like those kids on the back of the old five-dollar bill.Report Typo/Error