Meet the ice master

By Andrea Tomkins – 

Taking a turn around an outdoor rink is a favourite winter pastime for many Kitchissippi residents, yet many don’t know the ice isn’t maintained by city staff. It is, in fact, a small army of volunteers who do the work. Recruits come and go, but there are a few people like Westboro’s Stewart Dewar who give their time freely.

He moved to the neighbourhood “twenty-some” years ago and raised two boys who went through a hockey program. “They were almost raised here at Dovercourt,” reflects Stewart. “They spent a lot of time on the ice and on the little hill.”

Stewart Dewar is the volunteer co-ordinator and one of a core group of regulars who maintain the ice. at Dovercourt Recreation Centre. “No one person, or even a small group, can do it by themselves,” says Stewart. “You need to get as many people involved as possible.” Photo by Ellen Bond

It was during this time he noticed his neighbours working on the outdoor rink – commonly referred to as the ODR – shoveling and scraping and flooding it at night. He started helping once a week. As time went on, the original organizers moved on and he became the volunteer co-ordinator. Stewart’s sons are in their twenties now, but he’s still involved.

It takes a village to keep an outdoor rink in top shape. Not only is it a multi-step process that starts with shoveling the snow, scraping the ice and chipping away lumps and bumps, but there’s the flooding – connecting a heavy hose and spraying water over both surfaces – and draining the hose and putting it away. Depending on the weather, the process might happen multiple times a week. If there’s a thaw, which seems to be happening more often, it requires time and effort to rebuild.

Some outdoor rinks in Ottawa didn’t open this season due to a lack of volunteers. Many are maintained by community associations but this isn’t the case for the Dovercourt ODR.

The number of residents coming forward to pitch in is not a “torrent of volunteers by any means,” describes Stewart, although Dovercourt has an enviably good-sized crew. He estimates there are about 20 in rotation and half a dozen regulars but he’s hoping to bump his core crew and spread the load. “No one person, or even a small group, can do it by themselves,” says Stewart. “You need to get as many people involved as possible.”

A large new sign by the shack is a direct appeal for volunteers and even goes so far as to have Stewart’s email address and phone number printed right on it.

He understands why it can be hard to get folks to come out and pitch in. Rink prep time is “prime time” for many people. Rink volunteers are bundling up and heading out for their shift at a time when most people are just sitting back to binge on Netflix.

“You gotta go at 8:30 or 9 p.m. and spend an hour and a half or two hours outside in the dead of the winter,” Stewart laughs. “It’s not everybody’s cup of tea but it’s actually not bad if you dress for it.”

Even a short stint cleaning the snow off the ice is welcome and there’s no need to be on a call list. 15 minutes with a shovel in the evening makes a big difference. Parents can lead by example by picking up a shovel while their children play. It’s a good lesson for kids in community building and an easy way to give back.

“That’s often the sentiment,” says Stewart. “People say they want to give back to the community and this is how they’re going to do it.”

It’s a busy rink. The variety of people who use them is always a wonder, says Stewart. The ODR is enjoyed by everyone from skilled young hockey players playing a fast-paced game of pick-up, to people who’ve never been on skates.

Stewart is especially thrilled to see new Canadians tie on a pair of skates. He remembers a group of kids who were new to Canada and to hockey. “Honestly, they were just howling with laughter, having fun. To me, that’s awesome,” recalls Stewart. “You don’t have to register or pay hundreds of dollars to sign up for hockey and then hundreds more to get all the gear; they just came out. I was tickled pink every time I saw those kids.”

Intergenerational games of shinny are also a treat to watch: “When the little ones get the puck, they get to keep it for a little bit.”

Ice skating is a lifelong tradition for many of us, a new tradition for others. Stewart reflects fondly: “Keeping that tradition alive is definitely what motivates me and a lot of other people to come out and do the work that they do.” Of course, that begs the question: Where would we be without our community ice rinks?

“Communities need lots of threads to hold them together,” he says. “The outdoor rink is a thread in the fabric of the community.” But it’s more than just a physical space, says Stewart. It’s also the interaction. “People don’t just sit there; they merge together. It’s social.”

Where else do people just show up and join a game for which there’s no schedule or time frame? “You just join and it sorts yourself out,” explains Stewart. “You see what side needs a player and all of a sudden you’re playing a game with your neighbours and you’re connected with them. Where else can you do that?”

Andrea Tomkins volunteered to flood the rink at Dovercourt. Read about her experience right here. The February 1 print and digital editions of KT contain our outdoor rink map and guide. Don’t miss it! Download the digital edition right here

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