Volunteers Keep Community Rinks Flourishing (and Free)
The neighbourhood ice rink has long been a bastion of winter cheer. It’s a place for folks to get outdoors, to commiserate on the windchill, and—as Edmonton’s north enders may proudly recall—to learn to skate alongside hopeful hockey and figure-skating greats. Remember that one time Kurt Browning showed up at the Baturyn rink? These things happen.
Sometimes drag queens take over, too, as they did at Parkdale’s ice launch earlier this year (naturally, the event won the “Most Creative Rink Opening” title this year from Edmonton’s Federation of Community Leagues).
Behind the family laps and shinny schedules are the unsung heroes of Edmonton’s community league-operated rinks: Local volunteers. These handfuls of neighbourhood dads and moms and do-gooders often recall their own times on the ice as kids, and steadily carry on working nights and weekends to flood, shovel, and even sometimes Zamboni the ice in their communities (of the fifty or so rinks that open in YEG each year, four leagues boast having their own Zamboni, usually bought used).
Throughout this winter, CBC has been running a Rink-Checker series, profiling the personalities that bring these facilities to life. There are stories of new recruits learning to make ice on the fly, and of long-time ice-makers passing on wisdom to younger mentees, like Randy Layetzke, a master of the rink for three decades, who is prepping Mark Selwood to take over rink duties in Meadowlark.
“It’s remarkable there aren’t a large number of volunteers that still continue to do this, because I think people really believe in ice rink amenities,” says Laura Cunningham-Shpeley, Executive Director of Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues (EFCL). “People love having neighborhood skating opportunities where people can walk to the rink, and they can meet their neighbors. It’s one of those real sources of pride for communities.”
It’s not always an easy gig; between keeping dedicated volunteers, minimal training, and the challenges of aging equipment or boards, some communities have rinks that are left unflooded for years—like the aforementioned Baturyn rink. Volunteer Wayne Raymond approached that league after an eight-year stretch of no ice in the hood, rounded up a group of volunteers, and got the rink back up and running.
“It’s my labour of love,” Raymond explains. “The kids coming out here, you see their faces. It’s worth every hour, every second.”
In the case of Strathcona’s Helen Gillespie, who’s worked for her league for nearly 46 years, the encouragement of local folks kept her inspired until she hung up the ice-making hose four years ago.
“I was really wanting to make good ice for the kids. They used to stand around the boards and yell, ‘When is it going to be ready?’ with these big eyes and big smiles,” she says. “They used to come and say, ‘This is best ice we have in the city’ and I would think, whoa, way to go.”
“I think when you can go to a place where you might know some people, you can have some fun, that’s really a positive in a lot of ways,” says Cunningham-Shpeley, noting that EFCL’s support of the rink program is tandem with the City of Edmonton’s Live Active Strategy. Getting people out and active, that’s a big challenge in a winter city, and the rinks play a great role in getting folks out of hibernation and into their community spaces. “It helps people feel more connected to where they live.”