Outdoor hockey traditions under shadow of climate change

KINGMAN, Alberta — Larry Asp grew up playing shinny outside in this tiny rural town he calls home again after 40 years away. Since returning, he also holds the keys to the outdoor ”Rink of Dreams” that gives the 90 local residents the chance to skate outside during the keen Canadian winters.

Out here on the prairie an hour’s drive southeast of Edmonton, the ice in the former ”Lutefisk Capital of Alberta” doesn’t seem to freeze as long as it used to, not like when Asp was a kid. He unlocked the doors to the rink, which in late September was simply dirt after a summer of hosting barrel racing and other equestrian events, and gazed into the wind-swept distance.

”We’re kind of at the mercy of the elements,” said Asp, a retired member of the Kingman Recreation Association board. ”In the springtime because of the (rink’s) white boards and the sun, it starts melting back from the boards pretty quickly. You’d be really lucky if you got four months out of it.”

After a warm fall, the rink was back to being a rink again by mid-December and the skating – and the hockey – had begun. Two hours to the southwest in the Town of Sylvan Lake, the skating surface on the 544-acre namesake body of water opened Dec. 19 this year for activities that last until the melting begins, usually in mid-March.

Pond hockey has been a tradition for generations in places like Kingman and Sylvan Lake, across Canada, parts of the U.S. and cold environments around the world. Yet winter sports are, as Asp notes, at the mercy of the elements.

Experts say climate change is making for shorter, freezing winters and poses a threat to the very existence of the outdoor stick and puck games at the root of hockey.

”The climate is warming, we are having more variability, there is less ice coverage overall,” said Michelle Rutty, assistant professor of faculty of environment at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. ”It is conceivable that we will continue to see sort of a shorter season, so pond hockey is absolutely at risk. There’s no denying that.”

The Winter Classic, an annual headline event on New Year’s Day for the National Hockey League, was put off this year because of the pandemic. No fond memories offered by players recalling how they laced up their skates outside, no fans bundled up in large, open-air stadiums to watch their teams play through whatever Mother Nature had to offer.

A generation from now, professional players might not even have those childhood memories.

”Everything has changed so much that they all have access to arenas,” said Craig Berube, the Stanley Cup-winning coach in St. Louis who grew up in tiny Calahoo, less than two hours from Kingman. ”Everybody’s got an arena in their town. They’re not going on ponds and playing hockey anymore.”

Where they still can play outdoors, they do. Indoor arenas sprung up everywhere in the 1960s and ’70s, but Canada still has an estimated 5,000 outdoor hockey rinks, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Neither Hockey Canada nor the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association keep data on the number of youth or adult players outdoors, though it’s an obvious and beloved part of the country’s fabric. Kingman, like scores of other communities, has Friday night skating parties that serve as a gathering event. A frozen corner of the 16-mile Sylvan Lake features two hockey surfaces, a place for casual skating and sometimes even a track to get up in speed.

”This is the quintessential Canadian experience out there,” said Joanne Bjornson, who has worked for the Town of Sylvan Lake for eight years. ”Every community has an outdoor rink to skate on or to play a little stick and puck on.”

Skating on a frozen body of water or building a backyard rink is as Canadian as it gets. Walter Gretzky famously built and filled one with a lawn sprinkler in Brantford, Ontario, for young phenom Wayne and his siblings. Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby loved outdoor games as a youth in Nova Scotia and scratched the itch three years ago by joining a surprised young player as his local outdoor rink in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec.

In Kingman, Wilf Brooks and Trent Kenyon raised money to sustain the hamlet’s ”Rink of Dreams.” Kenyon said the rink, which is attached to a post office, is revenue-positive now and hosts 60-70 skaters each Friday night.

”We have a Zamboni, so it’s really nice ice in the winter,” Kenyon said. ”Very few places can you go out and it doesn’t cost anything and you just go out and skate on nice ice and have fun.”

Brooks, who sold sports equipment for 50 years, estimated there were probably 125 outdoor rinks in the Edmonton area in 1963, but only around 25 remain today. It’s a far cry from when hockey in northern Alberta was played outside far more often than under a roof.

”Probably 70% of all youth played the game or skated on a pond or an outdoor rink because they were all within a short walking distance, whether it was in a small town, on the farm or in the city,” Brooks said. ”It is a lifeline. It’s a rite of passage.”

Maybe not forever. According to Canada’s Changing Climate Report released in 2019, seasonal lake cover has declined across Canada over the past 50 years because of later ice formation and earlier breakup. The projection is the fall freeze could come 5-15 days later and the spring lake breakup 10-25 days earlier by the middle of the 21st century, depending on various emissions factors.

”The winter season is getting shorter,” said Stuart Evans, geography professor at the University of Buffalo and the RENEW Institute. ”The first freezing day comes later and the the last freezing day of winter comes sooner, so you’ve just got fewer days. And if you’re somewhere marginal, presumably at some point you run out of enough days.”

Brooks said the past five winters in Edmonton have been plenty cold, which Rutty pointed out can be true even as the climate trend shows significant warming over the past 30 years. A 2016 study by the government’s Environment and Climate Change Canada showed the average winter temperature across the country has risen by almost 6 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 70 years.

Mitchell Dickau of the Matthews Climate Lab at Montreal’s Concordia University studied and mapped out the number of outdoor skating days in Quebec’s biggest city, with data showing it could decrease from 50 now to 11 by 2090.

”What’s that going to mean for just our day-to-day life?” Dickau said. ”Currently we have five months of the year where we’re in the middle of winter, and it might not feel like that because there’s only 11 skating days.”

For now, at least, there are many more than that on Kingman’s Rink of Dreams, with plenty of hot chocolate and hot dogs available when the temperature plummets.

”It’s our culture. It’s our bread and butter,” Brooks said. ”Every kid wants to put on a pair of skates, even if they just go skate down the river.”

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    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

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    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

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    LAMBERT ISLAND

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    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

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    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

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    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

    Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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    Harry How/Getty Images
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    CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

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    The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.