In the city's aging indoor arenas, the real trouble lurks below.
Failing pipes that carry calcium chloride brine to freeze the ice surface. Cracked concrete slabs under the ice, boards and benches heaving from permafrost in the ground under the foundation, weary ice plants.
For John Atkinson, the city's superintendent of arenas, each day brings the possibility that one or more of the 15 municipal rinks under his charge will reach the breaking point. "It's hard to say how long they're going to hold up," Atkinson said as he toured the Old Exhibition Arena. "It could be 10 years, 20 years or it could go tomorrow."
Concern over the city's rinks has been a top-of-mind issue ever since an April 2010 report indicated all were beyond their original lifespans and some were at risk of being taken out of service. The report said more than $51 million in repairs would be needed over the next 10 years to keep the rinks in service.
In the year following that report, the city found mould at four rinks and was forced to close one, Maginot, for the entire 2011-12 season. All four rinks were meticulously cleaned and new dehumidifiers to control moisture were installed.
If any of those rinks were to close, it is unlikely the city would move quickly to build a new one. The city has no fund in place to pay for replacements. Instead, council asked for expressions of interest from public and private sector groups interested in building new facilities or adding sheets to existing rinks. A report updating that process will be tabled at city hall Monday.
It is unclear how many other organizations will step up to build new rinks because it is extremely difficult to operate a facility like this at a profit. City rinks, for example, cost about $200,000 annually to operate, even after counting ice rental revenue. That business model isn't likely to attract wide interest. Which leaves the city between a rock and a hard place. Taking recreation facilities out of service is a sure way to provoke ire among voters. However, with no immediate source of money for replacements, this is a problem without a solution.
That is not to say the city's rinks are not hanging tough. In fact, notwithstanding the long list of problems, repairs, and replacements needed on an annual basis, most of the city's rinks are clean, tidy and, for all intents and purposes, fully functional. That is remarkable given the fact the inventory of city rinks is approaching the deep stages of middle age.
The oldest city rink -- the appropriately named Old Exhibition Arena on Jarvis Avenue near McPhillips Street -- is already an astonishing 51 years old. It is followed by a clutch of other rinks -- including Grant Park, Sargent Park, Maginot and Bertrand -- that were built in 1967, Canada's Centennial. The young pup of the lot is Sam Southern Arena on Osborne Street at a sprightly 37 years old. With a planned lifespan of about three decades, these rinks are working well into their retirement years.
The rinks controlled by individual community clubs face the same challenges. Most are of the same vintage, Atkinson said, meaning they are approaching or beyond their expected lifespans.
Atkinson noted ice plants are a constant concern. At some rinks, most notably Sam Southern, the ice simply never dries. The average compressor has a lifespan of 10,000 hours, after which major repairs and new parts are needed. A full ice plant replacement, as was done two years ago at Century Arena, is a $500,000 hit.
The next biggest concern, Atkinson said, is the degradation of brine lines under the concrete slab that sits beneath the ice. Although there have been no significant failures to date, if the lines are breached, it could result in a seven-figure repair at any one of the rinks, he said.
At some rinks, heaving ground under the facility is causing havoc with the slab, boards and benches. Atkinson said some of these rinks were built without insulation below the brine lines. As a result, the ground is almost permanently frozen from the ice plant. That causes significant shifting, threatening both pipes and the slab.
In addition to structural and mechanical failures, the arenas are considered profoundly outdated. Many of the Centennial Year rinks have extremely poor sight lines, tiny dressing rooms, and few showers and bathrooms. Atkinson said when they were built in the late 1960s, they were considered a massive upgrade for hockey families who prior to that had played mostly at outdoor rinks. However, these facilities do not provide the environment or the amenities demanded by today's families, Atkinson added.
There are no hard guidelines for when an individual rink will be taken out of service. Atkinson said every repair or upgrade is assessed individually, and ultimately measured against the cost of a new rink, which is in the neighbourhood of $7 million. "Based on the cost and the size of the problems, it may get to a point where it just doesn't make any more sense to repair it," Atkinson said. "We don't know when that will come, but we can see it probably happening some day."