Hockey players at the 2022 Polar Pond Hockey tournament in Hay River. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio
An Edmonton Oilers mainstay of the 1980s, Craig MacTavish grew up playing pond hockey in London, Ontario, where he honed his skills and developed a love for the sport.
MacTavish’s route into the game may not exist much longer. As the climate changes, Canada’s ability to sustain outdoor hockey is measurably decreasing. (Environmental scientists even track conditions at hundreds of backyard rinks.)
“That’s how you get good,” MacTavish, now 63, said of outdoor makeshift rinks as he attended Hay River’s Polar Pond Hockey this past weekend.
“You’re handling the puck, you’re outdoors, there’s lots of camaraderie, lots of competition … It’s something really deeply rooted in the fabric of Canadians.”
The disappearance of outdoor rinks is of such concern in Canada that a program part-funded by the federal government, the Climate and Sport Initiative, has begun backing Save Pond Hockey events devoted to educating people about the climate crisis through sport. Though Polar Pond Hockey has existed in its own right for years, this year’s event also carried the Save Pond Hockey banner.
Bruce Dudley, representing the Climate and Sport Initiative, recalled a conversation with Wayne Gretzky about backyard rinks.
“He spent the entire time talking about when he was a kid and what it meant to him and his dad,” Dudley said.
“It was relationship-building, it was social skills-building and it was hockey skills-building.”
Outdoor rinks occupy a nostalgic place in Canadian hearts. They look good. They are central to the nation’s winter-sports narrative. But Dudley argues they’re also community hubs that help kids whose families can’t afford access to other recreational sport, or who live in rural areas without facilities.
“We’re concerned that our children, or our children’s children, aren’t going to enjoy the same benefits from outdoor hockey that we did,” he said.
In Hay River, Polar Pond Hockey was cancelled by unseasonably warm weather in 2019. This year, the Arctic Energy Alliance – an NWT not-for-profit that helps residents and businesses reduce emissions and access clean-energy rebates – ran a climate and energy fair and hosted a tour of nearby energy projects.
“The North is going to see climate change first-hand,” said Terry Rowe, organizer of the tournament.