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Zanetti Report #2:January 7, 2009

Outdoor rinks – Recreation.

(*Why “Zanetti”? To remind us of a very effective former Recreation Director whose slogan was “let’s make it work!”)

This report addresses two categories of problems that need more work at outdoor rinks: (1) poor communication and (2) low attendance at some of the city’s outdoor artificial ice rinks. The report offers some Recreation-run solutions, many of which are already being successfully applied at selected rinks.

Contents: rink hot line/ Access Toronto/ telephone and web information/ signage/ school visits/ skate rentals/ helmet policy/ per capita cost of outdoor rinks/ permits vs. public access/ healthy snacks/ harmonization of holiday access/ summary of recommendations (p.6)

1. Poor communication about outdoor rinks

* A hotline that’s not hot: The City advertises its 338-RINK line as a “rink hotline” and promotes it on its website: “You can also get updated rink information by calling 416-338-RINK (7465) 24 hours a day.”

As an information line, the city’s 338-RINK line gave wrong opening-date information about all four outdoor civic rinks: Nathan Philips Square, Mel Lastman, Albert Campbell (Scarborough) and West Mall (Etobicoke), on dates ranging from November 22 to December 8. The 338-RINK line also had wrong or missing outdoor rink access information for other rinks on major holidays like Christmas Day (until 3 pm) and New Year’s Day (all day).

As an updated weather-related hot-line, the 338-RINK line gives information for the central Toronto rinks only. The 338-RINK line does not function as a hotline for the rinks in any of the other city districts. The Etobicoke recording gives a general warning about rinks having “temporary closures” in bad weather. General cautions of that type, posted seasonally, do not qualify as the “updated information” that the web site promises. For an inventory of how the rink “hotline” performed so far this season: Hotline Monitor December 2008.

* Access Toronto: had incorrect information about Christmas Day rink access, but it did connect callers to a Parks, Forestry and Recreation number that had better information. Access Toronto can’t substitute as a hotline since it’s not currently answered in the evenings or on weekends, i.e. during the main skating hours.

* Individual rink phone numbers: unlisted. Actual rink phone numbers are not on the city’s rink schedules nor in the phone book. Rink users are directed to all-purpose community centre phone lines that are often not answered, especially during high rink-use times like holidays. Two examples from recent e-mails received during the school holidays by
[About Irving Chapley Rink]: “…. the phone rarely gets answered.... they still have outdoor pool information on their answering machine. It’s unacceptable.”

[About Ledbury Rink] “I have tried calling the number on the schedule (Elvie @ 416 395 6004) but she is on holiday! why would she be on holiday at the height of her busy time? Her voice mail left two other numbers - no one is answering even though it is Monday!... We are trying to keep three young boys busy outdoors over the holidays and the lack of coordination and community communication is startling and extremely frustrating.”

* Signage at outdoor rinks: missing or wrong. North York outdoor rinks have no outdoor posted signage about rink hours, but are apparently about to get such signage. There are paper signs posted in windows, but in the case of some rinks they are either not prominent or posted inside locked areas. There are no prominent signs revealing that outdoor rinks are accessible to skaters outside of the (few) supervised public skating times and the permit times.

Etobicoke rinks did not have opening day signage. But those rinks all have standard metal signage about rink schedules, with duct tape over the wrong bits. Most of the rinks have the current west rink schedule prominently posted.

Many central outdoor rinks had outdated opening-day signage. About half of the central rinks have outdoor bulletin boards, but up-to-date schedules are less common than schedules that are 1-6 years out of date. Civic rinks have no city rink brochures and no bulletin boards for posting such information.

Solutions for better communication about outdoor rinks:

* Better telephone information:
*a) Immediately publish each rink telephone number on the city’s website, and next year in the phone book. During busy times or bad weather, the staff at each rink can record updates messages about their local rink conditions, and go about their other work the rest of the time. During peaceful periods, rink staff can answer the phones and be helpful, and promote outdoor rink use.

  • b) Assign existing rink coordinators in each district to update the current rink hotline during times when updates are needed -- holidays and during (and after) bad weather when rinks may be closed. If that is not possible, rename the rink line simply “information line” and discuss the hotline concept for next season.

* Better website information:
*a) Improve the information and layout of the city’s outdoor rink website pages and update it more often.

* Better on-site rink information (signage):
*a) Post current local and citywide skating schedules at every rink where they can be seen even when the rink is locked.

  • b) For rinks with very limited supervised public (drop-in) skating, post possible available public skating hours just as prominently as the citywide skating schedule, along with known seasonal permit times (to give skaters a better chance at planning rink visits).
  • c) Consult city council to consider the ideal amount of available public skating for citizens in every part of Toronto.

* Collaboration with outside groups (like
*a) Direct rink staff to allow the website poster to be posted at all outdoor ice rinks, and to restore the poster where it was removed by staff.

  • b) Revisit bulletin boards policies in public spaces like community centres, so that each bulletin board shows a local contact number for approval of material. Have staff allow a variety of neighborhood postings rather than restricting the boards to City postings only.
  • c) Cross-link on the city’s website, to make it evident that critical feedback from rink users is welcome, in the interest of a variety of points of view.
2. Low rink attendance at some rinks, too crowded at others

There are very noticeable differences in attendance between different rinks. In general (with some exceptions), single-pad rinks with lots of permits have lower all-over attendance numbers. Double pad rinks have much higher attendance, with the possible exception of West Mall and Giovanni Caboto, which are often sparse.

Weekday daytime attendance at most outdoor rinks is vanishingly low, except at those rinks where school visits are actively encouraged. However, it appears that there may now be a city policy requiring school classes to pay for using outdoor rinks. This policy, if it exists, needs more investigation (due in Zanetti Report #4), since requiring schools to pay for using outdoor rinks seems to bring in little revenue, merely keeping school classes away.

Many, but not all, outdoor rinks also have low attendance by female youth, newcomers, and low-income rink users.

Given that outdoor rinks are costly to run, the per capita civic funds spent at such rinks are highest in rinks that have low attendance. Permit fees collected at even highly permitted rinks, with very limited public skating hours, only marginally compensate for the increased per capita cost. For example, the 2007 PFR “Full Costing and Pricing Study” reports permit revenue at even one of the higher-earning outdoor rinks, Sir Adam Beck, as only $12,582 a year, whereas the full cost of operating that rink is calculated at $271,127 a year. (The per capita spending at the different outdoor rinks is the subject of the upcoming fourth Zanetti Report).

Some other specific problems undermining rink attendance:

* Different cities within a city.
The City’s website posted a “holiday rink schedule” covering half the school holidays, from December 29 to January 4. This schedule was helpful, not only in guiding Torontonians to rinks where they could skate, but in showing the great disparity between outdoor rink access practices in different parts of the city.

Because New Year’s Day this year was beautiful and sunny, many hundreds of people were out on the rinks in those places where they could get access. But poor North York and Scarborough residents!

  1. North York: On New Year’s Day, all but the three un-fenced outdoor rinks were locked, and only Mel Lastman Rink was staffed – for four hours only.
  2. Scarborough: the city’s holiday schedule made no mention of their outdoor civic rink.
  3. Central Toronto: the City schedule showed all 21 outdoor rinks open for varying hours, some as late as 10 pm, all of them staffed by Local 79 casual staff. But none of those rinks, with the exception of City Hall, had any Local 416 ice maintenance for that day.
  4. Etobicoke: all but one of their boarded rinks (i.e. 10 rinks) were listed as open from 10 - 6, specifying “unsupervised.” That meant they had Local 416 ice maintenance but no Local 79 staff at all.

* Locked front doors, and/or no staff in sight. Examples: At West Mall the main doors to the rink change area, which face the street and the bus stop, are always kept locked. Entry is from the back (via the parking lot). At Giovanni Caboto the front doors to the rink are kept locked because the staff are unwilling to clean snow off the steps or the ramp down to the rink from the street.

At some rinks there is still no signage on the windowless staff doors, which are usually closed. Locked doors and non-visible staff discourage new users and make other users feel unsafe.

* The helmet policy for non-contact (“shinny”) hockey discourages participation in the sport. Up until this year, the City’s mandatory helmet policy for non-contact (shinny) hockey seemed to be reducing rink usage dramatically wherever enforcement became the rink staff’s central concern. This was worrying, especially at rinks that formerly had high levels of youth participation. Where youth were told to leave if they didn’t want to play shinny hockey with a helmet on, they often didn’t return.

But it appears that the policy just won’t stick. This year, enforcement has become noticeably less firm even at the formerly zero-tolerance rinks, and youth attendance seems to be recovering. However, an unenforceable “mandatory” policy puts the City in the most legally vulnerable position possible. See for instance this landmark case:

Solutions for better outdoor rink attendance * Hospitable welcome:

  • a) unlock front doors. Make the rink entryways the first point of staff contact.
  • b) direct rink staff to be clearly present and visible at all times – or ask Parks to give this direction in the case of Local 416 rink staff. Remind lead-hand staff that dealing with the public is part of their new job description.

* Plentiful free public skating times: Set a starting target of 25% prime-time public drop-in skating time at every City outdoor rink, with the aim of increasing newcomer and low-income users. The plentiful free skating time at Etobicoke’s unsupervised tennis-court rinks is the reason why some of those rinks are so popular in their neighborhoods, and such important social centres there, despite the lack of even washroom access.

* Mature supervision: Combine good staffing with useful work for staff to do, for instance skate rentals (see below) and provision of snacks, drop-in skating help for new skaters, free beginner-shinny classes (with helmets!), and youth support. Give solid supervision and support to those staff, recognizing the important youth centre function of busy outdoor rinks. This arrangement already exists at some neighborhood rinks and can readily be replicated, without staff increases. (There may have to be some staff borrowed from other units in the short term, for example from strategic planning, but that can only help in the long run.)

* Low-cost skate-rental sites: Cheap ($2) skate rentals change the attendance and the colour of the outdoor rinks almost immediately, adding many more newcomer children and youth, as well as more women and extended families. Small-scale neighbourhood skate rental sites are fairly easy to set up and soon pay for themselves. For example, skate rental income/expenses at Dufferin Rink for December 2008:
Income: skate ($2) and hockey stick ($1) rental, sale of pucks, laces and tape: $3120.48

  • CELOS skate rental assistant payouts: $670.50
  • Cost of pucks, and tape, laces, insoles: $646.25
  • One-time cost of skate sharpening machine: $2617.08.

The skate sharpening machine is almost paid for, and after that, extra income can be used to replenish the skate supply. Note that the starter supply was a donation from the NHL Players’ Association, but after that the money has been used to enlarge the collection.

* Healthy snacks and a variety of beverages at rinks where kitchens already exist: The availability of cheap and tasty snacks seems to influence steady rink attendance by children and youth, and rink use by newcomers and low-income skaters.

* Encouragement of school classes. Where school classes are encouraged to use public outdoor rinks, with no permit fee, and (at four rinks) even with free skate and helmet loans and free hot chocolate, weekday daytime attendance is very strong. This is a good way of promoting exercise and introducing children to the availability of public facilities.

* Reconsideration of the City’s mandatory helmet policy, using a risk assessment tool such as this one from the B.C. government: A Freedom of Information request turned up the encouraging news that the City has had only two rink-related third-party injury claims in the ten years since amalgamation, both of them related to full-contact hockey (a body check and a fight). Therefore, there is room to reconsider the outdoor rink helmet policy with less haste than appears to have been the case last time. According to the very limited documentation available, the City’s mandatory helmet decision for outdoor rinks – unlike the Province’s bicycle helmet law – was entirely without public consultation. There needs to be more thorough consultation with the City’s lawyers as well, to discuss the unintentional increase in the City’s vulnerability to injury claims in the present situation.

Institutions and governments have begun to use various analytical tools like the one in B.C. for complex risk-related decisions, to evaluate the benefits, drawbacks, and hidden costs, with due diligence.

* Immediate harmonization of holiday access for city outdoor rinks. The city’s decisions to open so many city outdoor rinks for public skating on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day was a big success. On Family Day, North York should not again get less access than the rest of Toronto. Generally, public access should be maximized for all outdoor rinks. The rinks already exist, so there is no new expense. Etobicoke’s unsupervised rinks have shown the extent to which improved access is possible without extra spending.

Summary of recommendations


  1. Immediately publish all rink telephone numbers on the city’s outdoor rink web pages
  2. Assign a hotline updater for each district to make the 338-RINK a real updated hotline
  3. Remove the “hotline” word from the city’s rink information line and rethink it for next year
  4. Plan to improve the rink web pages for next season, start now
  5. Have clear signage about public skating hours at every city rink, even visible when the rink is locked
  6. cross-link on the city’s website
  7. Allow rink bulletin boards to accept non-city postings, including the web poster

Attendance/ public rink usage

  1. Consult with the council about the ideal amount of public skating time at outdoor rinks
  2. Until then, increase prime-time public skating hours at every rink to a minimum target of 25%
  3. Unlock all front doors to rinks
  4. Direct rink staff to be visible to rink users, doors open
  5. Give strong support and supervision to rink program staff
  6. Diversify rink programming to diversify rink users: skate rental, snacks, free Beginner-shinny classes, etc.
  7. Remove any permit fees for school classes and open up the outdoor rinks to them
  8. Revisit the mandatory helmet rule, with the help of a thorough, orderly risk analysis and stronger input from the Legal Department
  9. Harmonize holiday access at outdoor rinks for the remainder of this season.

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Content last modified on January 08, 2009, at 12:20 PM EST