Three weeks after his hockey career began this October, six-year-old Blake McCartney faced his first-ever lockout.
The stoppage in play wasn’t due to a labour snafu, nor a contract dispute between the candidate for the 2032 NHL entry draft and penny-pinching executives over at the Corydon Community Centre. After only a few Saturday skating sessions, it was a local surge in the COVID-19 pandemic that put McCartney’s 2020-2021 hockey season, and every other Winnipeg hockey season, on hold.
"He was loving it," says his dad, Shane McCartney. "Unfortunately, he only got a few weeks into the season before it stopped." Blake barely had time to make an impression on local scouts.
Soon after the province announced recreational sports would be on hiatus, Shane and Kara McCartney started talking about building a front-yard rink at their Crescentwood home, realizing that Blake and siblings Emerson and Aiden would need some sort of winter activity to keep them busy.
"It’s the first time we’ve ever contemplated building a rink," says Shane, whose rink will freeze around two oak trees. "And it is, pretty much solely, related to the pandemic and what looks like will be a long, cold, dark winter."
The McCartneys aren’t the only family deciding to become rink operators ahead of the city’s first full pandemic winter. In yards across Winnipeg — from River Heights to East Kildonan to St. Vital — the grass is getting frosty and lumber is being laid out.
For those with the space, a backyard rink is a tradition intrinsic to Canadian winter folklore: the greatest hockey player of all, Wayne Gretzky, once honed his skills at a rink his dad Walter built in the backyard of their home in Brantford, Ont. During a pandemic, the rinks are more than tradition. For some, they’re a frozen patch of sanity.
A few blocks away from the McCartney Forum, siblings Ben, Jude and Natalie Grahn are patiently waiting for the opening day of a rink of their own.
"It’s going to be a big wink," Natalie says, not quite getting the "r" out right. She "used to be three," but now is four.
"Our plan is to spend as much time outside this winter as possible," says mom Jacky Anand.
For Ben, that means playing a game with Jude where they shoot pucks "lightly" at each other’s feet to test accuracy. Jude is excited for that, but he also knows his mom and dad are, too. "Now I can stay out of my parents’ way," he says.
Nearby, Stuart Thomas and his neighbour, Greg Maksymowicz, took the fence down between their backyards earlier this year, and their backyard rink will bridge the divide. On one side, there will be a rink five metres by 14 metres, and a rustic warming hut will be close by. Thomas says the community’s rinks play an important role in connecting the community every winter. This year, he spearheaded the collection of 100 bales of hay to distribute to yard rinks around the neighbourhood.
Rinks are a way to ensure kids still get outside during an especially stressful time, he says. "The pandemic has ruined lots for them, but it can’t really take this away," he said. "This is Winnipeg," the transplanted Brit says.
Apparently the rink craze extends beyond the 204 area code. Chas Birkett, the owner of Guelph, Ont.’s RinkMaster, which sells rink kits and yard liners, says his company received more calls than ever this summer. "It was pretty clear we were going to have a big year," he said. "Lots of Canadians and Americans are looking to their backyard this year." Sales have already more than doubled over 2019 figures, and Birkett figures they’ll keep going up: he’s done huge reorders of liners, which the company carries in 100 different sizes, because rinks come in all different sizes, he says.
On Harvard Avenue in Crescentwood, there might soon be the biggest rink in the neighbourhood. Dubbed Harvard Gardens, the sheet, when frozen, will be 120 feet long and 30 feet wide, spanning three neighbouring yards.
It’s the third year the Gardens have bloomed, and Doug Hemmerling, a teacher whose front porch lines up neatly with the centre face-off circle, said the building committee (his neighbours are civil and electrical engineers) decided earlier this year to make it bigger and better than ever to accommodate maximum fun and proper distancing: the rink will be used for hockey, skating, and even curling, with markings to be painted once the ice freezes. A winter slide will also gently propel kids across the slippery surface.
"Who knows how big we’ll go this year?" said Hemmerling, a father of five. There’s been talk of a light-up scoreboard.
"The rink is really a mental health thing," he said. "We were on the ice last spring during the full lockdown, and having a place for the kids to play helped maintain a positive atmosphere."
That’s what McCartney is hoping to build for his kids, just like his dad did for him and his siblings growing up in Carman, where a backyard rink was an annual tradition.
"My father was here the other day from 20 feet away," McCartney said. "For him, it brought a bit of a smile to his face, recreating this scene he created for me. That’s not lost on me."
The lumber for the boards is laid out, the posts are in the ground.
"Now it’s a matter of a little snow and some cool weather," he said. Then Blake McCartney can resume training.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.