‘Winters of my childhood were long, long seasons,’ Roch Carrier famously penned in his iconic Canadian tale The Hockey Sweater. ‘School, church and the skating rink was where it was lived.’
Today, kids spend much of their time watching TV or playing video games, and that’s what prompted Dulaney Blatz, a Lowe Farm-area farmer, to pull a team of people together to build a fully equipped outdoor rink.
At 80 x 100 feet, it’s just shy of NHL’s standard size, the lights stay on ’til 10 every evening, and if you need a cup of coffee or hot chocolate, there’s a canteen in an adjacent 1,000-square-foot heated building.
Blatz couldn’t be more pleased with the $125,000 rink, paid for by community fundraising, a provincial Community Places grant, and the Lowe Farm Co-op and the RM of Morris, which purchased the land for the site.
“I’m going to say it’s the nicest outdoor rink in Manitoba,” said Blatz, chair of the rink-building committee.
The community’s former rink was a dilapidated affair and was demolished to make room for residential lots. That meant parents had to drive their kids to nearby rinks at Morris, Rosenort or Plum Coulee — a challenge, both because of parents’ busy lifestyles these days and the fact that public skating time is limited in arenas devoted to hockey.
It was high time to bring back some old-fashioned shinny, said Blatz, a father of four.
“I organize the baseball program here in Lowe Farm and we’ve got three or four months of activity outside for kids here in spring and summer,” he said. “We needed something for wintertime, too.”
A local rink also means kids not involved in hockey programs can now strap on their skates and do their impression of Sydney Crosby or Dustin Byfuglien. At least, that is, if they have them.
A poll of students done by Lowe Farm K to Grade 8 school principal Rob Fiola before Christmas found only about 20 per cent even owned a pair of skates.
“There’s lots of kids who’ve said, ‘I’ve never skated before,’” said Fiola.
That’s all changed since January. The rink was built right next to the school, which has incorporated skating into its physical education program.
It costs nothing to skate here and a wide assortment of donated skates and helmets and hockey sticks means no one sits on the sidelines because they don’t own their own.
“You can just come here and skate,” said Blatz. “If you don’t have skates, you can go on boots. There’s a stick to grab and play and there’s pucks. Some kids are too small to skate. Their parents pull them on a sleigh. It’s fun.”
A pink-cheeked young lady gliding shakily over to greet a visitor last week agreed with that.
“I never knew how to skate before,” she said. “I really like it.”
Thanks to volunteers who supervise the rink, and tie skates, in the evenings, the operating costs are very small, said Don Groening, another committee member.
“We’d be looking at about $2,500 worth of labour costs if we had to hire for the labour that’s being donated right now,” he said. “But as a committee we just took it upon ourselves to share the responsibilities and donate our time.”
He’s the ice maker and why not — after all, he has his own Zamboni.
“I picked one up from the Elm Creek rink a few years ago, kind of anticipating someone someday would spearhead a project here,” said Groening.
“And then I got myself involved,” he adds with a laugh.
Ralph Groening, reeve of the RM of Morris said his council was glad to support this venture by donating the land for it.
An outdoor rink is a great way for smaller communities to provide residents with healthy, outdoor exercise, he said. People know they can’t realistically expect to build or maintain the much more expensive covered arenas in every small centre anymore.
And while this was no low-budget undertaking either, “it’s doable” for smaller centres, he added.
“This is more than just a good feeling about an old-fashioned concept.”
Blatz said they could have built something smaller and less expensive, but they wanted to capture people’s attention.
“When you do these things smaller, you have less interest. The bigger you make it the more interest there will be,” he said.
Plus, they built this to last.
“We could have built this a lot cheaper. We didn’t have to have such a nice building or such a nice rink and such nice boards. But this is forever. It should still be standing 50 years from now and it should still be in good condition.”
Meanwhile, many Lowe Farm residents are hoping Roch Carrier’s ‘long, long seasons’ will keep on coming — although Blatz will settle for 10 weeks of outdoor skating each winter.
“Anything above that is a plus,” he said.