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From the weekly series "The making and unmaking of Dufferin Grove Park," beginning July 2011, written by Jutta Mason
To read all 20-plus chapters see Dufferin Grove Park website.
Toronto’s first compressor-cooled ice rinks were built after World War 2. By 1955, the city had six permanent “Artificial Ice Rinks” (A.I.R.’s): High Park, Earlscourt, Alexandra Park, Greenwood, Eglinton, and Dufferin. There were also four “portable” A.I.R.’s , presumably rinks whose entire machinery was dismantled seasonally: Rosedale, Ramsden, Queen Alexandra School, and Kew. Dufferin and Earslcourt rinks were new that year, and very popular. On one sample Sunday, Dec.11 1955, attendance at Dufferin Rink was 800 people. At High Park, there were 962 skaters, at Eglinton 958, and at Earlscourt 861.
There was a request to city council that year, to allow food concessions at Dufferin and Earlscourt rinks, but permission was declined – showing that the City government suffered from a lack of imagination and enterprise back then too.
Dufferin Rink was rebuilt from scratch in 1993. That was the also the first summer of the Big Backyard, and as the construction crews worked on the rink, I sometimes asked the kids if they were looking forward to skating there in winter. Quite a few of the summer kids said that they wouldn’t go there, that the rink is a scary place. I asked them what was the most scary thing about it, and the kids said “the rink staff.” That puzzled me. When it came time to re-open the new rink, I decided to find out for myself. That winter I spent quite a few hours every week just sitting on a bench in the entryway (I don’t skate), chatting with people who came to skate, and with the rink staff. People quickly got used to me and paid little attention.
Anomaly # 11. The rink house renovations.
The Dufferin Grove rink house, completely rebuilt in 1993, had too many walls and not enough windows. During rink season, it was impossible for the rink staff to keep an eye on whatever foolishness might be going on in the separate, walled-off change rooms. Parents couldn’t stay warm and watch their kids out on the ice at the same time – there were no eye-level windows to the outside. (All the windows started three meters up.) The retired Italian construction workers, who had begun to use the rink house every day to play cards, were jammed in by the wall in the boys’ change room. When the mayor came to give her speech in October, she had to stand in the hall.
Meran was a fast learner on her new job, but on her third day of work at the rink she came across a situation she hadn’t expected to run into, and she called me at home. She told me that three boys who were probably no older than 12 or 13 had asked her to help them count some money. Meran counted $900 in $20 bills. She asked them where they got the money. One of the boys, who evidently had trouble with strategy as well as arithmetic, told her they got the money from a neighbourhood “chop shop” (auto parts dealer) for delivering a stolen car. Meran said her eyes must have widened. But before she could say anything, the boys looked at each other, quickly got up, and left the building. When she looked outside, there was no one to be seen. Meran called me because she had been told at the start of her rink guard job that the scene at the rink was sometimes “heavy.” She wanted a candid answer from me: would she be likely to encounter other kids who would be needing help counting large amounts of money?
The city’s compressor cooled “artificial ice rinks” (A.I.R.’s) were an odd case. Everyone who used them knew that the Local 416 ice resurfacing staff spent most of their time sitting in the office. Sometimes the ice was pretty rough, but the drivers said they only had to clean it twice a shift. Their other duty was to make sure that the compressors were working all right. To carry out this task, each driver had a refrigeration compressor operator (RCO) “ticket,” which they got after a week’s training. The compressors were turned on all the time, but by law they had to be watched only eight hours a day. If the RCO’s (as everyone called them) found anything wrong during those eight hours, they were not allowed to try and fix it – they had to call the tech services staff. For the rest of their shift they mainly sat and talked to the rink guards, or read the paper.
A Dufferin Rink board of management
Neither management nor the union offered a workable remedy for the rink problems. But there was plenty of talk among the rink users. There had been a lot of rain that year, raising another issue: most of the rinks had such thick ice from the addition of the frozen rain, that their compressors were unable to handle it. The top of the ice was essentially insulated from the cooling pipes underneath the cement. So the ice surface was mushy. Rink users and recreation staff tried to get the zamboni staff to do more scrapes, to reduce the ice thickness, but the zamboni operators insisted that wouldn’t help, and refused to do extra maintenance. Some skaters said, “Parks and Rec has shown that they can’t run the rinks properly. We need to have more local control. A Board of Management is the answer for Dufferin Rink – that will make the rink work much better.” But other skaters were worried about setting up a shadow bureaucracy which would demand too much volunteer time, and maybe cause discord in the neighbourhood as well.
The idea of such a practical research group circulated among park friends and park program staff for a few years. What finally nudged CELOS into existence in December of 2000 was the increasingly frustrating problem of overcrowding at Dufferin Rink. The problem was created after the rink change room became a kind of neighbourhood clubhouse. Word got out, and the rink became a draw for people all over the city. Sometimes it was so crowded that the rink wasn’t fun anymore, and it wasn’t local either. We asked the people who came from across town, isn’t there an outdoor rink nearer to your house? Toronto has more outdoor compressor-cooled rinks than any city in the world (51 by now), so the answer was usually some version of, “yes, there’s a rink right in my neighbourhood, but it’s so unpleasant that we never go there.”
“Training” for winter rinks includes another important prohibition: no shinny hockey allowed without a helmet. The policy was made in 2002, but efforts to enforce it didn’t get into full swing until 2007. That year, citywide rink training emphasized the central importance of the helmet policy. At some rinks, the first thing a visitor saw coming into the rink change room was a huge hand-lettered banner saying no helmet? no shinny! The change rooms were dotted with other, smaller signs: no photography. No litter. No loitering. No chairs on the ice for people learning to skate. No shoes on the ice for non-skating parents trying to help their little ones to stand up. No strollers on the ice for skating mothers or fathers with babies.
Dear Jim Hart,
This is an open letter about outdoor rinks, mostly. I want to use them to make a kind of template of the questions that need to be asked if we’re going to make better use of Toronto’s wonderful public amenities.
It looks like rink users may be locked out of our public rinks in January. But we were never a party to the discussions that led up to this. If Toronto’s 51 neighbourhood outdoor rinks are to be closed in January, that may prompt the “third element” – those of us who are neither management or staff – to enter more actively into the public discussion of how to put our public spaces on a viable footing.
I’ve been a booster of outdoor rinks for about 18 years. For the first ten years, an outdated provincial regulation required a Local 416 RCO (Refrigeration Compressor Operator) to be at the each outdoor rink continuously for 8 hours a day. These rink operators had a special “ticket,” allowing them to write down some meter readings from the rink’s machinery gauges twice a day. That took ten minutes each time. The RCO also drove a tractor fitted with a “Champion” ice-resurfacer. If he cleaned the ice twice during his shift, that took another hour. The rest of the time the RCO sat and talked, or read the paper, or played cards with a few regular rink visitors. If it snowed, the RCO couldn’t do any ice cleaning until the plough came to clear off the snow. There was a plough on the front of each tractor, but back in those days, using a plough was a different job classification, so according to the collective agreement the RCO wasn’t allowed to use the plough to get the snow off.
Wallace Rink was built in 1983, long after Giovanni Caboto Rink (called Earlscourt) to the north and Dufferin Rink to the south. It was part of a brand new community recreation centre, built on the site of a closed-down airplane factory that had turned out war planes in WW2. Alderman J.J. Piccininni was the force behind building the centre. His name belied his stature – he was an enormous man, well over 300 pounds, an alderman for 25 years – and he was determined to get as many centres built for his Italian-Canadian constituency as possible. The airplane factory had become an informal community centre after the city bought it, and the Italian men had converted one section into a clubhouse and card-players’ room. As the plans for the new centre were developed, the Italian men became wary of the direction the plans were taking, no longer a man-clubhouse but a flashy sports centre with a daycare and agency offices and a rink, and only limited hours for the card players. There were many community meetings to adjust the plans, and these meetings eventually became so acrimonious that police had to attend in case of fist-fights.
This chapter continues from Chapter 25 on the subject of using what we have now to turn more outdoor rinks into winter neighbourhood community centres. I want to contrast Campbell Rink in Ward 18 with Queensway Rink in Ward 5 (Etobicoke).
Queensway Rink, and the eight other compressor-cooled rinks without hockey boards in Etobicoke, are classified as “minor” rinks by Etobicoke parks management. All of their old rink change rooms have been kept locked for at least ten years. The rinks have no program staff, and so they show up on the city budget as very economical. When I recently went by Queensway Rink I saw a saw a brand new field house. But it was locked too. I wrote to the ward councillor, Peter Milczyn: why is the change room locked?