Is it time to say au revoir to community hockey rinks?
People & Places

Is it time to say au revoir to community hockey rinks?

As Gatineau moves forward with its plan to build multi-pad ice skating facilities, and demolish older neighbourhood ice rinks, Ottawa’s neighbour is squashing diversity in hockey, skewering the 15 minute neighbourhood concept, muffling creativity, and ending a Canadian tradition.

What’s more, national statistics show that this trend could be sweeping the country. Many communities, coast to coast to coast, share one commonality: the local barn. For residents who have their arena — even the drafty ones in need of repair — the neighbourhood arena holds a special place in their hearts. Like the grocery store, it is a meeting point, sometimes more so than the community centre or the town hall. Parents, children, and residents of all ages converge at the arena; they play, talk about the weather and the Sens shortcomings, all while building a community.

This image of the Robert-Guertin Centre in Old Hull by Christian Villemaire was part of his 2018 exhibit that explored the changing nature of Gatineau.

But recently, in an effort to cut building and maintenance costs that total nearly $5 million, Gatineau is working with the private sector to regroup and centralize ice skating surfaces under big roofs. Examples include the Branchaud Brière Centre, which was built in 2013, and the Slush Puppie Centre that opened last year. These types of centres are growing in popularity; in Ottawa, there’s the three Sensplex rinks in the east, west, and north west. While residents are still able to gather in those multi-pad arenas, the feeling of belonging certainly differs. The intimacy of a small arena is absent in a large complex, where it’s not as easy to spot a familliar face, simply because there are more people coming and going. In short, the well-known characters often present in the stands, the canteen, or the pro-shop will be lost in the crowds.

The trend in the 1970s and 80s was to build arenas in residential neighbourhoods, the current one is to build large complexes with a minimum of two ice surfaces along major road arteries, serving a much larger population base. This is coupled with the demolition of aging community neighbourhood arenas, which are becoming more difficult and expensive to maintain, if they are not in a state of disrepair.

This developing situation forces an overwhelming number of users to drive to get to the rink. It certainly discourages active transportation and goes against the lauded 15-minute city urban concept that champions proximity and walkability. Walking to the local arena with one’s
gear, whether it’s for an early morning practice or to meet friends in the evening for public skating, might soon be a thing of the past.

This past fall, Gatineau shuttered the Robert-Guertin Centre in Old Hull, stripping away the only arena in its oldest neighbourhood. The municipality also plans to close the Beaudry, Baribeau, and Campeau arenas in the very near future. A 2017 commissioned municipal report
prepared by the firm Planifika recommends the demolition of eight of the then ten Gatineau arenas by 2027. To replace this lost ice-time, the city wants to build another sports complex in or near the Plateau suburb residents already rely on a vehicle to get around. For those who
don’t have a vehicle, ice skating sports will become even harder to afford.

A Canadian Problem?
Dealing with aging arenas is not unique to Gatineau. According to the most recent National Arena Census, conducted in 2005, of the 1,857 Canadian arenas analyzed, approximately 45 per cent of Canada’s rinks were already beyond their projected life expectancy. The report
states that an arena’s approximate life expectancy is 32 years. Of the 1,857 arenas included in the census, roughly 85 per cent are municipally owned, making their future overwhelmingly a municipal matter — and one that citizens can influence. The decision to relocate or demolish arenas is often one made by the municipal council.

Travelling is already a big barrier for new and low-income families to afford hockey. Racialized or marginalized community members looking to get into ice skating sports face a lot of barriers. In addition to the financial burden, there’s transportation: When a local arena closes, the extra travel time can stretch a family’s ability to support young players.

Having the arena outside residential neighbourhoods also makes those late night beer leagues less appealing. Travelling an extra 15 minutes one way to play a 11 p.m. game, instead of the short drive to
a local rink, can deter older players from playing Canada’s national winter sport.

When the local arena, as many have, outlived their usefulness, municipalities can regroup other municipal services, such as a library branch, a community centre, with the new arena. Creating adjacent commercial space to accommodate a gym, an eatery, or even a pub (selling the local brew of course) could be another way to generate funds to upkeep an arena. As most skaters rent the ice surface for an hour, there’s a steady flow of traffic; a commercial space in an arena could be seen as desirable for coffee shops, bakeries, and casual eateries. The
commercial rent can in return help with maintenance. This past September, construction began on a facility in Wasaga Beach that will house two rinks, a library, as well as meeting rooms. The mayor touted the project as an economic driver for local businesses, as tournaments
would bring customers to the surrounding businesses.

With a little imagination and creativity, decision-makers can find solutions to keep arenas nestled in different neighbourhoods and maintain the Canadian tradition of the local barn. If all else fails, there’s always the Hockeyville grand prize of $250,000 in arena upgrades. Better start working on that nomination, competition is fierce.