Toronto’s privately-operated rink has to change its tactics when it gets chilly

Though the recent thaw was supposed to last until Feb. 24, the biting cold temperatures and brutal windchill are giving way to a new season of North American recreation — hockey, sledding, ice skating, ice fishing, dog sledding and more. But the organizers of Toronto’s landmark Citi Ice Centre — the country’s only privately-owned and operated outlet for state-of-the-art outdoor skating rinks, and an escape for dozens of people in the city, from as far as Iraq — are trying to adjust.

The conditions have forced the Citi Ice Centre’s ice to revert to “colder than normal” conditions. Unfortunately, that means different things to different people.

For one thing, it means organizers can put the rink out. But it’s not always sunny, and since the rink opened on Jan. 8, it’s regularly windy. Visibility is decreased, making the surface even more slippery and, in turn, dangerous. The facility must also be constantly monitored, since it sits right on a busy highway.

But the Citi Ice Centre has no choice but to make a change: So far, people will wear a regulation-yellow layer of white material to protect their skin from the dry white ice, and a thick layer of hard polyethylene to cover their shoes and boots.

The rink has also changed the number of volunteer workers who spend time smoothing the surface — from 12 once to 11, on average, depending on the day.

Amateur hockey teams are responsible for maintaining the ice during their pre-season practices, which was once necessary only when the temperature dropped below 20 degrees. But now, there’s a less onerous solution: Hockey games have come to play outdoors. During the last major ice outage, the Citi Ice Centre had to cancel about 2,000 games, or three out of every four games played, according to a spokeswoman.

In fact, about 33,000 games were played — two-thirds of them on the cleared ice.

The 2,000 games played in the most recent ice outage may have been a bit underwhelming for eager fans, but the team does have good news for spectators: Compared to last season, the majority of NHL games are now played outdoors. In 2015, for example, NHL teams in Chicago, Buffalo, Colorado, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Montreal, New Jersey, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, New York Islanders, Nashville, Carolina, Columbus, Phoenix, San Jose, Toronto, Washington, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, St. Louis, Minnesota, Edmonton, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Boston, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Florida, San Jose, Anaheim, Washington and Toronto were able to entertain fans of those teams by playing in outdoor arenas.

As the seasons have shifted and regular outdoor games have drawn sparse crowds, the Citi Ice Centre has welcomed new games — including juniors from the Royal Ontario Hockey League and women’s provincial championship games. But even those competitions don’t have much fun at temperatures as low as 18 degrees.

What about the other traditionally popular season-ending events like dog sledding? The Citi Ice Centre is offering a different strategy: Dogs have to go inside when it’s cold outside, but when it’s warm, they can go to the rink. And the proposed solution, which was proposed to the organizers last fall by the Toronto Parks and Recreation Department: Let dogs run free. That comes with its own risks: Dogs tend to bite, and keep their owners up all night, since they poop in the snow and ice. The city has approved a pilot program for dogs that are on leashes and have a harness, and that may lead to more dogs being allowed to roam off-leash on the rink, according to a Parks spokeswoman.

The Citi Ice Centre isn’t the only private space for ice skating around the country. Over the past decade, Planet Ice has more than 50 similar spaces, according to its website. The Citi Ice Centre is hosting a rematch between North America’s best curlers this weekend, from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on March 7.

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