Speed skating organizations seek money to refrigerate Ontario's last outdoor oval

Ottawa speed skating organizations are putting together a pitch to raise between $3 and $4 million to refrigerate the province's last competitive outdoor speed skating oval.

Climate change has forced athletes to train in US, and the cancellation of major competition

On Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, the Brewer Park Oval in Ottawa was open to anyone who wanted to try speed skating — and about 100 people did. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Climate change is forcing Ottawa speed skating organizations to put together a pitch to raise between $3 and $4 million to refrigerate the province's last competitive outdoor speed skating oval.

The Brewer Park Oval has launched the careers of a number of local speed skating Olympians, including Ivanie Blondin, Vincent De Haître and Isabelle Weidemann — all of whom are heading to the Pyeongchang Games in South Korea later this month.

The changeable weather, particularly over the last five years, has led to fewer and fewer viable skating days for athletes, however. That's forced many to train as far as Quebec City, Calgary, and Lake Placid, N.Y.

"It's been getting worse and worse," said Julie Colbourne-Milne, president of the Ottawa Pacers Speed Skating Club, at an event Saturday where the public could try speed skating on the oval themselves. 

Kids at the Brewer Park Oval sign a poster to motivate Team Canada speed skaters heading to Pyeongchang, South Korea for the Olympics. Three Olympic-bound Ottawa skaters trained on the oval. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

The pitch for refrigeration

"We used to have over 60 days [of skating] continuously," Colbourne-Milne said. "And over the last five years, it's been just dwindling down to forty days, then thirty days, and we've only had a handful of days so far this year. So it's proven to be really difficult."

Earlier in January, the weather forced the cancellation of the provincial long track speed skating championships — a devastating blow for organizers. 

Now, the teams and organizers are putting together a pitch to begin soliciting the city, the Ontario government, the National Capital Commission, Sport Canada, and even Ottawa's two universities for funding to keep the oval in good condition all winter.

Some advocates point out it would cost far less than the $5.6 million spent on the temporary rink on Parliament Hill.  

Unseasonably warm weather forced the oval to close in January, leading to the cancellation of the province's long track speed skating championships. (Tony Choueiri/CBC)

Skating opportunities 'shrinking'

"This is the only 400-metre track in Ontario," said Mike Rivet, head coach of the Gloucester Concordes. 

Rivet has coached a number of athletes who've been to the Olympics, including the three skaters from Ottawa heading to this year's games. 

He said that when he began in the sport, there were a half a dozen venues in the province. Now, there's only the Brewer Park Oval.

I've been having to travel pretty far — to Lake Placid, even Calgary, to get some ice time.- Speed skater Rachel Freitag

"Your opportunities for finding those athletes is shrinking," said Rivet. "It's nice to have the Olympians from Ottawa, yet are we supporting them?"

Speed skater Rachel Freitag said skating on the oval has has fuelled her own Olympic dreams — but she still needs to improve her time to qualify for the Olympic Oval Program in Calgary.

"It's been really tough," said Freitag.

"It hasn't been that many days that I'm able to train, and I've been having to travel pretty far to Lake Placid, even Calgary, to get some ice time," she added.​

Speed skaters Rachel Freitag, left, and Maxwell Cole, right, say the number of days available to train on the Brewer Park Oval has been shrinking, forcing both to go elsewhere to train for competition. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Councillors open to ideas

City councillors David Chernushenko and Mathieu Fleury also attended Saturday's event. 

Fleury, who sits on the city's sports council, said he's interested in hearing the proposals that come forward.

Chernushenko, the councillor for Capital Ward, said discussions are already underway to come up with long-term solutions for not just the oval but for all the facilities at Brewer Park.

Those include an indoor pool and rink — and one option could involve linking the indoor refrigeration systems with the outdoor oval.

If the spending makes sense, "I would love to see this turn into a great sport centre for the city at large," Chernushenko said.