Skinny shinny season: City-run rinks ban outdoor hockey amid COVID-19 pandemic

Lacing up skates for a game of shinny on an outdoor rink is a cold-weather ritual for many Canadians. The treasured pastime has largely disappeared this winter, however, as many city-run ice surfaces across the country prohibit outdoor hockey in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Close contact during games ups risk of transmitting virus, experts say

Minor hockey players play shinny along Ottawa's Rideau Canal in February 2020. In 2021, the outdoor hockey ritual has mostly been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Lacing up skates for a game of shinny on an outdoor rink is a cold-weather ritual for many Canadians.

The treasured pastime has largely disappeared this winter, however, as many city-run ice surfaces across the country prohibit outdoor hockey in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19.

One infectious disease expert says shinny isn't an ideal recreational activity during the pandemic, but in some cities, fervent fans continue to flout orders to play their game.

Close contact between players ups the risk of transmitting COVID-19 during a game, explained Dr. Brian Conway, head of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre.

"Outdoor shinny hockey is not the safest behaviour," he said.

"The way in which it will be made safe is by making sure that through that process, personal distancing is maintained as much as possible, that it is outdoors and that it is with people you know and have been around [in the same household, or in the same social bubble, where they are still permitted] through much of the pandemic."

Several municipalities have gone further, limiting the activities allowed on outdoor rinks. Ice surfaces are open in Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon, but hockey is prohibited.

Ice surfaces are also open in Winnipeg, with provincial restrictions limiting hockey players to practising their skills individually.

The operators of Mosaic Stadium in Regina have flooded the field where the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders usually play, giving people a massive ice sheet to skate on, but hockey and other sports such as figure skating and ringette are not allowed at "Iceville."

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Ottawa originally planned to allowed shinny with some restrictions. That changed last week after new provincial regulations came into effect. The city now only allows skating at its rinks.

"As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, the city will adjust its services to ensure it adheres to all public health guidelines and provincial regulations," Dan Chenier, general manager of Ottawa's recreation, cultural and facility services, said in a statement.

Outdoor ice surfaces are open around Toronto and signs reading "No Shinny — suspended until further notice" have been posted on the surrounding chainlink fences. The notices aren't being heeded by all, however.

Bylaw and police officers have been escorting about 100 people off the ice each night, city spokesperson Jaclyn Carlisle said in an email.

"These warnings are intended to educate residents about the safety issues of using unsupervised city locations for recreation, especially after hours," she said.

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A new stay-at-home order comes into effect on Thursday in Ontario, though people still are allowed to go outside to exercise.

While shinny isn't the safest option in a pandemic, Conway recognizes the need for people to get out and get active.

"You have to balance the imperatives of public health that would essentially want us to be in very tight bubbles until the second wave finishes with the health of the public. People are going to do things," he said.

"I think people are tired. People are tuning the message out. People are listening but not listening."

It's important to provide people with safe ways of staying active as the pandemic continues, Conway added.

Golf, biking, hiking and skiing are all sports that can be done safely during the pandemic, he said.

Getting on the ice is possible, too. Skating on an outdoor rink is safer than playing hockey because people are more likely to stay apart.

"Distance is important — the virus doesn't have wings. So two metres away from each other, it's really hard to transmit the virus," Conway said.

Across the country, skaters are advised to wear masks at most outdoor rinks and are encouraged to keep their distance from others. Many city-run facilities have closed change areas and are limiting how many people can use the ice surface at a time.

Toronto is encouraging skaters to book their ice time online with a website where people can see the city's rinks on a map and use a filter to determine which locations offer amenities like or trails.

Some avid skaters are foregoing municipal rinks all together this winter.

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Jordan Chorneyko owns Dad's Rink, an Edmonton-based company that supplies build-your-own rink kits for people looking to skate in their backyard.

Business has been brisk this winter.

"There's a lot of people who want to make their own rink this year," Chorneyko said.

"In the pandemic, people can't get out and do the things they're used to. With all these restrictions, you're only allowed so many people at the outdoor rinks for a certain amount of time. They're pretty much empty right now, every time I drive by one."

Orders for the kits have been pouring in from across the country, and inquiries have come from further afield. Chorneyko had an email from Sweden asking about the product, and has shipped several to New York, Wisconsin and even Alaska.

Each kit includes a membrane for flooding, an edge that gives the surface a border and instructions. The process takes about three days, depending on the weather.

It's the same system Chorneyko's dad used to create the ice surfaces where the family skated each winter when he was growing up.

"It's a special memory, you know, playing hockey on the backyard rink. It's what brings friends and family together," Chorneyko said. "Playing out there with my brother, early on the weekends or having a hockey game with your buddies after school during the week, it's just fun to be outside enjoying the Canadian winter."

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