Monday, 26 December 2016


The Ice Man Cometh (Sort of)

Seven, maybe six, possibly eight years ago I was in Toronto on business. I managed to corral a friend for a night on the town after remote office hours. The excursion eventually concluded in a bar on Queen Street - mercifully within weaving distance of my hotel. The joint’s theme was, I vaguely recall, ironic hipster communist, red stars and Groucho Marx and John Lenin and alcohol. Perhaps because of the setting and my friend being a musician and me having had my first novel published, drunken artists unable to make a living off our fields of passion, our conversation turned to politics, specifically the state of the Left.

I pontificated, hopefully in an undertone, that the Left has always been bereft of sensible economic policy but since it had pretty much dictated social mores in our country, and rightfully so, it was now seeking a new windmill to tilt at and its current bete noire was ecology, us in our environment. Whales, gluten and meat had been forsaken for the grander, abstract concept of global warming. And ‘global warming’ had been hastily re-branded as ‘climate change’ and that sudden zigzag in terminology and definition was cause for alarm to an ad man like me because obviously the primary premise had been flawed and the new message came across as a hasty patch to beta Version 1.0. Where were the R and D, and Q and A, anyway?

Well, dear me, was I ever wrong. Time has told. Science too.

Edmonton is Canada’s northernmost major metropolis. It is a winter city, which is to say that for many months of the year it’s fucking cold. The sun’s on a broken dimmer switch, the days are short and the nights are longer than a Baptist Sunday sermon. A recent Bishop of Rome, perhaps John Paul II, allowed that Hell indeed was a human construct. In my Canadian Hell it is 50 below, I am naked, alone, and I am wet. I cannot imagine further misery. Oh, wait, the songs of the Poppy Family as sung by Paul Anka are on eternal repeat.

Growing up I was never a Cub or a Scout, never a joiner. I’ve always preferred my own company excepting those times when it has just been me with me and there’s nothing left to mutter about, only walls to climb. Rah-rah teambuilding advocates whose exercises were endured throughout my career in advertising only fertilized my latent misanthropy. Knowing all of this, I, in a moment of unhinged transcendence, volunteered for our neighbourhood’s outdoor ice rink maintenance crew.

Outdoor hockey is a tired trope in this country, a marketing cliché for anyone who wants to sell anything wrapped in the prickly and nostalgic wool of soft nationalism. Still, there is something magical about shinny, informal games played without persnickety referees, fewer rules and no padding. Hockey is the best sport on Earth when it’s just played by a group of friends with strangers. Nuances need not be negotiated. No goalies means no lifters, hacking and slappers are tacitly forbidden.

My volunteer motives were threefold and entirely selfish. I wanted to force myself to get out as I can easily and pleasurably pass time engrossed in a book or the sides of a record album. I prefer exercise that achieves a companion benefit or result. I cannot comprehend Lululemon gym hamsters who work out on machines that simulate actual activity. The two-inch diameter watering hose is more than 200-feet long and wound on an iron spool, heavy metal and rubber. Finally, a clean sheet of outdoor ice allows me time travel. Alone on a rink wearing a team sweater, I can again be a kid with dreams of growing up and being as good as Jean Beliveau or Bobby Orr.

Ideally you make ice when it’s between eight and 12 below. You lay down a spray over the entire rink and when you retrace your steps to do it again your first layer will be frozen. A proper hockey ready sheet requires some 40 or 50 hours of labour. Watering a base of turf too heavily in milder weather results in unsightly yellow patches because the drenching displaces soil and minerals which rise. The resulting blotches are overly prone to gouging and spot melting on a sunny day. Our volunteer crew efforts to date have been uncoordinated. I visited the rink twice last week but nobody else was there, perhaps because the outdoor temperature was too warm. Like anyone hours into a new job, I hesitated to take the initiative, worried about making slush and undoing what little we’d already accomplished.

The physical plant for our rink, essentially a big tap, is housed in the adjacent community hall. That public building is a new one. It opened in September, over budget and rife with niggling functionality issues mostly caused by a ‘green’ vision of self-sustainability (except the solar panels were too expensive). So - and mercifully, I think, we were unable to take advantage of an insanely bitter cold snap earlier in December because nothing we needed to flood the space worked properly. The rink enclosure had also been utilized as a construction staging area. Consequently the grass was chewed up, rutted, and the re-sodded portions were never mowed. The field was no longer even a suggestion of level.

It snowed all day Christmas Eve. Think of a street as a shallow trench between kerbs, now imagine it filled, unplowed and compacted. Today, five days past the solstice, the weather gave us a bit of a break. Christ was born between six and three B.C. and so he would’ve turned about 2020 on His birthday yesterday and I was feeling that old myself today when the rink manager called seeking labour. I got into my gear and hustled up the street.

The rink manager ran the snow blower. I followed his path wrestling the pull of a mechanical rotary brush, burnishing our thin layer of ice and the stubble poking through it and too inexperienced to sport ear protection against the roar of the motor. Next we chipped off the snow encrusted along the base of the boards and heaved it outside the confines of the rink. Hockey boards are surprisingly high when you’re wearing boots and standing on frozen grass instead of a thick slab of ice. Our goal this holiday week is to somehow have the rink ready for New Year’s Eve. Tomorrow’s forecast indicates a high of zero, in northerly Edmonton, in late December; I’m not confident but I’ll do what I can – weather permitting.

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