There is something about the great Canadian outdoors during the winter. The landscape is swaddled in a sea of beautiful white. Trees are adorned in kingly crowns of snow, or in rare instances like last week, transformed into glycerin sculptures by flash freezes of rain.
We Canadians like to think of ourselves as a hardy people. We scoff at the blizzards of snow and ice, punctuated by stretches of breathtaking cold. Winter is engrained in our identity, that we endure and even revel in it gives us all a sense of enormous pride.
Hockey is often a topic of intense discussion and debate, especially among the National Hockey League fandom and followers of other teams and leagues in man-made arenas where much of this country’s populace partakes in our favourite game. So it is no great surprise that an outdoor rink on the front lawn of a Cornwall home has generated such controversy, not just locally, but across the country.
There is something almost sacred about the small, outdoor family rink. It harkens to the simple pureness of a sport that was once accessible to anyone who had a patch of land bearing ice and a shovel. This is how hockey was born in Canada, on outdoor rinks enjoyed by our favourite hockey legends. It is how I first learned how to skate and later handle a stick and puck. It is probably how many of the people from my generation had their first encounter with the sport.
Growing up in the country, outdoor rinks were never an issue. Land was aplenty. If there wasn’t ice in a field next to you, there most certainly would be some down the road. Creating a rink was no more complicated than hoofing it down the road with a shovel and clearing off a patch of frozen water large enough for a game of shinny.
Even in the proper suburban setting, family rinks can be great community assets. Years ago, a friend of mine created a fabulous rink in his gargantuan backyard in Ingleside, complete with lights and all. It was a hit with the entire neighbourhood and provided hours upon hours of joy to local children.
It is in larger, more dense urban centres like Cornwall that our favourite winter pastime falls victim to a trend that has transformed Canada over the past number of decades — the death of the family farm and the ensuing exodus of country dwellers to the city. And the small lot sizes in many city subdivisions, coupled with the close proximity of neighbours, makes outdoor rink-building a tightrope act requiring equal measures of skill, knowledge and diplomacy.
On the whole, yes, the Vincent family rink on Monaco Crescent is a black and white issue. It was built partially on city property, and, based on common law, the city became the owner of the portion of the rink and any potential liabilities arising from its use and construction. It is much that same as if a portion of a neighbor’s shed is erected on your property. Either he must move it or that portion of the shed essentially becomes your property.
The fact that the Vincent rink existed before without city interference is a testament to tolerant and understanding neighbours, but by no means does that infer that it existed legally. I liken the situation to a driver who is caught for speeding. He might have broken the speed limit many times before, but that does not negate the police’s right to enforce the law when an officer sees that it has been broken.
Once the infraction, the construction of something on city land without the proper permits or permissions, was raised with the city’s bylaw department the city became legally liable for the portion of the rink on city property. It had no choice but to act. In acting, the city was forced to play the role of the “bad guy” much like the cop who may not want to write you a ticket but is required by his employer to do so. Nor do the events of recent weeks diminish the good intentions of the Vincent family to provide a venue for local youth to engage in Canada’s favourite pastime while whiling away the doldrums of winter.
What this protracted and emotional debate has revealed is just how passionate Cornwall residents are about their beloved sport. Yes, Cornwall is still a hockey town and that is a good thing. I too pine for the days when I could simply strap on my skates and amble to a nearby patch of frozen water to enjoy a sport which brought me so much joy throughout my youth.
Organized hockey has become too expensive and time-consuming for many families and garnering extra ice time for youth in the city’s indoor rinks is a difficult task for minor hockey organizations and cost prohibitive for a handful of youths hoping to gather to a amicable game of shinny.
That is where outdoor rinks fill the gap. They are accessible to anyone without charge and the local youth can whirl away on the ice for as long as their stamina — or their parents — will allow. So one cannot help but feel saddened by what will most likely be the death knell of the Vincent family rink. It is another tear in a Canadian fabric which is already tattered beyond recognition.
I hope for the Vincents, their neighbours and the city at large that there can be a new way forward, one that can be frozen into our memories as the moment in time when Cornwall came together, not to blame and shame but to rise above the din to envision novel ideas to perpetuate our beloved winter pastime to the benefit of all the stakeholders in this great city.
Greg Kielec is an award-winning reporter and editor with 25 years experience in the news business in Cornwall and the surrounding area.