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Toronto Closes Outdoor Rinks
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Shinny Hockey - Toronto HockeyCity cites costs, iffy weather for decision to keep most rinks shut. The shinny crowd is not amused. Courtesy of Andrew Chung, Toronto Star. Clack, clack, clack. The sticks hit centre ice, only to be tossed to one side or the other in a random draw to choose teams among these two dozen men, mostly strangers to each other. Here for a game of hard-skating shinny.

"I don't know anybody here except this guy, and we're about to play a hockey game," says Andrew Song, 21, motioning to his friend Jake Lee.

Both of their parents are immigrants from South Korea. They've been playing since they were 4.

"We live in Canada," he nods. "This is essential."

He glides away, donning his gloves. And the game begins. Before long, blades scar the sheen of the freshly washed face of ice. And the sounds of outdoor hockey diffuse into the open air under a cloudless, brittle night sky: the echo of the cold, hard puck hitting the boards, each time leaving a black reminder; the clang as it connects with the metal spine of the net.

By the end of it, some blood would be let, by Song no less. Some choice words unleashed. But the love would still be there.

"Please tell the city I don't care if I'm waiting longer for the bus," says Louis-Philippe Beauchemin, 22, as the floodlights go dark.

"Just keep the rinks open like they used to be."

It's a sentiment widely expressed these days, as City Hall has been engulfed by controversy over a decision to close 41 outdoor rinks just as March break begins during one of the snowiest winters in years.

The cash-strapped city says it's a question of weather and money. March is notorious for being warm, which risks melting the ice along with taxpayer dollars.

It's also a strangely political one, as the increasingly fractured city council has split along partisan lines on the issue.

But perhaps the biggest question of all is whether the city can adapt to changing conditions; whether it can be flexible. In this case, the answer appears to be no.

"It's ridiculous. It's a key week," says Michele Gowda, 42, whose rink near her home at Ramsden Park closed last Sunday. "Everyone's home; they have the time."

"Every year we get this," says Brenda Librecz, the city's general manager of parks, forestry and recreation. "It's March break, you've got to keep the rinks open!"

Last year, the city was ready, she says. The department kept 16 rinks open into the break, only to shut them down because the ice melted. "We spent the extra money and it didn't work," Librecz says.

It's not just the warmer temperatures. The longer, more intense sunlight wreaks havoc on the ice, parks manager Kevin Bowser explains. "You get reflection on the boards and that starts to melt the ice surface.

"You can lose an awful lot of ice in one day," Bowser says.

Many of the outdoor rink compressors, needed to cool the ice, aren't strong enough when the sun shines.

Do we need new equipment? Not even higher horsepower can compete with the sun, an engineer says on a visit underneath Nathan Philips Square, which has the strongest and best equipment in the city.

With that in mind, staff decided to keep just eight rinks open this year until March 16, the last day of March break.

But then the cold weather happened.

Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul's), chair of the community development and recreation committee, rejects the notion the department got caught with its pants down. "This is an unusual winter, so this wasn't a priority given the history of these kinds of rinks not working."

Librecz points out that most of the rink workers are temporary employees who work with a set end-date. The season ended last Sunday, as did their jobs.

Restarting the equipment and rehiring staff would have cost up to $380,000, she adds.

She concedes she has little room for flexibility. "Because of limited resources, we don't have those choices," she explains. "In the old days ... where there was a change in capacity or increase in service on the margin, you'd set up a little reserve. But nobody has contingency dollars for service anymore. Everything is down to the penny."

Hodgson rink, at Davisville and Mt. Pleasant, is almost a secret treasure, tucked behind Hodgson Public School and houses on the other side. It has two pads, one for hockey, one for pleasure skating.

Like most of the outdoor rinks, it's very well used. "It's families, kids, grandparents, grandkids, and the whole thing about shinny, I find it so refreshing," says Uku Vastopa, 48, the rink caretaker.

There is an unwritten shinny rule book, based on respect. No raising the puck. If someone gets a little too rough, peer pressure will bring him back into line. If a younger kid is good enough, they'll let him play.

Thousands have learned to skate here. Like 12-year-old Omar Blackford, tentative but improving. It's his first year skating.

"I thought it was fun and I was the only one in my class who couldn't skate, so I wanted to learn," the Hodgson Public School Grade 7 student says.

On the adjacent pad, Christian Jauslin has on his Hollister sweater and a pair of jeans, stick in hand, and is testing out a slap shot that is less slap than slip. His skating is better, but still a bit wobbly.

He can be forgiven for his secret love of the Montreal Canadiens, checking his computer's home page he had set to NHL.com as he sat in his house in the eighth arrondissement of Paris. It's that French connection thing, he explains, sheepishly.

"I love it," he says, with no detectable accent, having gone to an American school in Paris. "I always wanted to play hockey, but there were no rinks."

He and his freshmen pals from residence at the U of T, Aaron Azzoli and John Douglas, searched desperately for a place to play before they found Hodgson.

They'd have tried some indoor rinks, but they're always booked up. And often cost some serious cash.

"There's a crazy demand for hockey. Free, publicly available rinks? It's great," Azzoli says.

Recent history of outdoor rinks in Toronto has been rather tortured.

In 2001, budget cuts had council push back their opening from November to mid-December. cutting the season to just 10 weeks.

In 2005, the season went back up to 12 weeks, and eight rinks stayed open for March break.

Last fall, more budget woes had the city announce it would push back the openings into January. That is, until Mastercard came to the city's financial rescue with $160,000. Chronically short of money, the city proposed to increase recreation program fees by 21 per cent this year and 10 per cent for each of the next six years. That was rejected last month by the budget committee, which endorsed an 8 per cent increase instead.

On Wednesday, council defeated a motion by Councillor Case Ootes to reopen the rinks.

Ootes (Ward 29, Toronto Danforth) says rinks should have a high priority. "We could have found the money," he insists.

"Any organization has to adapt to circumstances that might change from day to day. This happens to be a perfect example."

Council instead adopted a motion by Mihevc to ensure the department looks at the issue next year and plans for it.

"Should we have had this plan in our back pocket to provide for this very unusual contingency? Well maybe we should have," Mihevc says. "That's what we've asked staff to do, so if it comes up we're ready."

In that shinny game under the floodlights, it's 10 minutes to 10 p.m. and Song tries to block a shot. The puck bounces off his stick and strikes him in the chin. The blood starts to drip.

He's swearing as he heads for the change room. He takes some snow and tries to stop the blood. Finally he checks a mirror. "I'm gonna need ... stitches, yo!" tells Lee. "Where's the nearest hospital?"

Beauchemin and his friends, meanwhile, are walking out of the parking lot.

They just live up the road, all having finished university and are now looking for jobs. (Though Beauchemin says his job search won't be so diligent, so long as Hodgson is open.)

They remember spending morning, noon and night at the rink when they were kids. Now it's not as much, although "I still live for this," Beauchemin says with a wide smile. "I know that at 8:45 I'll be playing hockey."

Under the streetlamps they walk down Millwood Rd., taking their time, skates perched at the ends of their sticks.

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