Technical Corner

Why We Need to Bring Back the Traditional Indoor Ice Season

January 2022

There was a time not so long ago that kids put down their hockey sticks and picked up a bat or lacrosse stick in spring – it was a sign that the seasons were changing. Today, it is impossible to track the seasons based on a kid’s sporting gear. This change has impacted both the child’s interest in a specific sport as well as the life cycle of the facilities they play in.

In the beginning, ice seasons had a limited shelf life as the venue was under the direction of Mother Nature - October to March or maybe early April. Most sheets were natural outdoor facilities, few had mechanical refrigeration to extend the season and help with ice quality control – most were just content having the play opportunity. As much as we followed the cold weather patterns, the other primary controlling factor was Canada’s farming season. Winter sports could only really start after the crops were in and had to stop when it was time to start planning for the spring seeding activities. As we started to design indoor ice sheets to get out of the elements and extend the season slightly, engineers calculated refrigeration equipment size and performance based on weather patterns for each specific region. Most facilities were designed as Mother Natures assistant as the outside cold temperatures worked in tandem with the mechanical ability of the rink. This is why most ice sheets have 100hp or less in refrigeration compressor ability that is supported by a flooded chiller and usually water/air condenser. The system was never really expected to run 24/7 to transfer heat to make artificial ice.

Many ice sports that started with the intention of providing equal community recreational experiences, with some competitive competition between local communities, have gone in a different direction. I get that “the only real constant is change” but with change, must come a forensic evaluation to determine if the change is in fact feasible. A well-trained facility manager is at times the non-user’s advocate. This means that they need to be the voice of reason for the non-user who often is a blind contributor who is not involved in the discussions but through their taxes will often support poor operational decisions. The facility manager must be their voice so that those making the final decisions take all information into account.

The debate of what is causing environmental change will go on.  However, there is no debate that weather patterns have changed. The vision of many organized sports to focus on elite competitive play rather than the grass roots has had an impact on levels of interest. Yes, there are many other influences. Who would have thought that soccer or other field sports would be played year-round in Canada and surpass hockey registrations? However, the discussion is on existing ice sports and how some decisions are impacting the facilities ability to function as designed. ORFA members have raised the impact of the demands of users to access ice sheets earlier than the traditional ice sheet season. Leagues are wanting access to the ice sheet to prepare for the upcoming season in warm summer months. Rinks that were never designed to make and hold ice when it is 30C outside are being pushed into service. Beyond struggling to create and hold the ice behind the scenes, the building is also exposed to significant humidity levels that will dramatically impact the life cycle of the building.

What is also happening is that those in control of scheduling playoff and other tournament events draw users from smaller buildings leaving local ice empty. In addition, when teams are bumped from playoff contention in early March, they lose interest, leaving these same buildings empty during the most available energy reduced seasons.  Yes, some teams remain active, but trying to generate the necessary revenues to balance the facilities accounts becomes difficult. The argument that the ice schedule should be easy to rent when youth sport no longer wants it is not as simple as it sounds. Ontario has 444 communities. Not all have indoor ice arenas, but the vast majority do. The majority of the 444 communities are under 10,000 in population. Most are struggling to balance their books. To keep Ontario’s existing indoor ice facilities alive, there will need to be significant sole searching by all stakeholders. Simple things like creating a realistic operational schedule that does not unknowingly pressure a community tax base will be critical to meeting this objective. Here in my own small community, we have gone from discussing adding a possible second pad to wondering how we can put people in the building.

There will always be elite sport. There will always be kids with drive and determination to make these teams but not every kid who laces on skates will ever be paid to play a sport - but every kid that finds the love and benefits of any game can play it for life. 

Comments and/or Questions may be directed to Terry Piche, CRFP, CIT and Technical Director, Ontario Recreation Facilities Association

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