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Families skate on plastic in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., which says its new NHL-sized synthetic hockey rink is North America's first. ((Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo))

North America's first NHL-sized synthetic hockey surface — built from plastic instead of ice — has opened in the northern Alberta hamlet of Fort Chipewyan.

The Archie Simpson Arena cost about $550,000 to install and functions just like a traditional ice rink, allowing players to wear the same skates they would use on an ice surface.

Troy Nice, the operator, said the sensation of skating at the newly opened plastic arena surface might take a little getting used to for those accustomed to gliding on real ice. For one thing, plastic is more unforgiving.

"I've skated on it and it makes you work a little harder," Nice said. "So on a positive note, it'll make the people who aren't great skaters probably improve. Once your blades get a little heated, a little warm, then it's like skating on regular ice."

Nice believes the rink, owned by the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort Chipewyan, will mean big savings on operational costs in the long term and will also have a smaller environmental impact. According to The New York Times, a refrigeration unit for a regular ice rink can cost up to $2 million, but additional maintenance costs can be about $300,000 a year.

The synthetic indoor rink comes with a 10-year warranty, and after about a decade, the plastic coverings can be flipped over so skaters can use the underside.

Ice is still not out of the question, as the plastic surface can be flooded and iced over in winter.

Fort Chipewyan, which has a population of about 1,000, used to have a regular ice rink, but the roof of the Archie Simpson Arena collapsed under the weight of snow in 2004.