UTURNS: The Invaluable Outdoor Rink – A Tribute to Walter Gretzky and Hockey Parents Everywhere.

By Randy Uens

RIP Walter

I was very sad to hear of Walter Gretzky’s passing for many reasons this past week. Obviously I send out my heartfelt condolences to the extended Gretzky family for their loss.

The Gretzky family has a long history and connection to the Quinte area starting back to when  a young phenom named Wayne Gretzky came to hockey school under much fanfare as a 13 year old to the Quinte area. A subsequent return to the  Belleville Peewee Shrine Tournament only fanned those stories of the young superstar in the making.

Wayne became a partner of Doc Vaughn for a few years as owner of the Belleville Bulls and later both Brent and Keith were Bulls standouts during their Junior A careers here. Brent went on to marry a Belleville girl Nicki, and lived in the Quinte  area off and on during his hockey career until moving back to his hometown and becoming a police officer.

I only met Walter a few times. Having known Brent over the years I made a point of stopping in to say hi as Brent was playing for the Leafs Alumni team that played our Dukes alumni a couple of years ago. Brent had driven his dad through a snowstorm to make it to the cozy confines of the Wellington arena. Brent was playing and Walter was being Walter, greeting everyone with the same down home charm that has been spoken about over the course of the last week.

 Walter was truly a gentleman. Kind , friendly and generous with his time,  Walter was willing to sign every last autograph and pose for every last picture with fans young and old. I have never met Wayne, but I knew Keith a bit while he was here and got to know Brent from his time in Belleville. That tight family connection and the love of family was deeply instilled in the entire family  by Walter and his wife Phyllis. It was at the heart of who Walter was and you could really notice it when you talked to him and the boys.

I always look back to those iconic tapes of Wayne and his siblings playing on the backyard rink Walter built in Branford. That rink was the  symbolic centrepiece to the family unit for the Gretzkys. The time spent maintaining it along with the family memories using it are so important to them. It was a fantastic gesture by Hockey Night in Canada to encourage people to send pictures of their favourite outdoor rinks as a tribute to Walter. RIP Walter , you will be missed.

The Resurgence of the Outdoor Rink

I don’t have to tell anyone reading this blog that Covid 19 has been a pain in the rump. The pain and suffering of many families dealing with loss as well as the loss of freedom and joy in our usual routines has been dragging on far too long.

One shining spot in the Quinte area has been the resurgence of outdoor rinks. Not only from the rinks in peoples backyards but those offered by the City of Belleville and other municipalities. It was great seeing a few pictures on Hockey Night in Canada of our local ice rinks during the tribute to Walter Gretzky. We all heard the horror stories of other municipalities refusing skaters on rinks as they tried to reduce gatherings, but our municipality seemed to embrace the need for outdoor rinks during these trying times.

So many young people that have not had the experience of  outdoor rinks got to enjoy a lot of it this winter. Between lack of funding,climate change and other distractions kids just haven’t had the opportunities we once had to enjoy outdoor rinks. . It really brought me back to my youth.

 I was fortunate to have lived out in Thurlow township as a kid. My dad had a large rink built for us kids that we took full advantage of. So many great memories of playing on our rink or playing on ponds around the area.

I remember playing on a small pond at a relative’s place. It was like a scene from Fat Albert. A ragtag bunch of kids from 6-16 on the ice playing together when “crash”, the entire pond folded in after a day’s worth of crowded shinny. The older kids were only in the water up to their waists and carried us little ones to the shore. Even eight inches of ice could not  hold that many kids in one little area.

 I loved travelling into Belleville to visit friends and play on the assorted rinks around town ; Ben Bleeker, Quinte Tennis Club, Stanley Park,  King George School. Victoria Harbour, Zwicks Island , on and on all had outdoor rinks. Our tyke house league team would have practices outdoors back then as weather seemed more predictable.

 At one point there was an outdoor rink outside the Yardmen Arena , now used as a parking lot. I remember when it was built and we were all excited to have an outdoor rink with real boards and mesh barriers to keep the pucks in play. Unfortunately no one consulted a materials engineer and the boards were all smashed out by the end of the first winter. Apparently plastic gets brittle in the cold and puck size holes become giant gaping vortex’s for lost pucks…. who knew!

The Need For a Permanent Outdoor Rink in Belleville

With plans to build a new YMCA at the Quinte Exhibition Raceway (QER) grounds it seems logical that the City of Belleville should consider turning that area into a multifunctional leisure area.

With climate change realities ,it is necessary to consider building an outdoor rink that has piping for refrigeration to extend the season of the outdoor rink. Toronto Parks and recreation have successfully run 60 mechanically cooled outdoor rinks for a number of years. As fantastic as our Victoria Harbour is, the season is relatively short and will only become more inconsistent.

The existing Grandstand at the QER needs a little TLC but from this amateur’s eyes has pretty good “bones” . This grandstand would be a wonderful starting point for the rink, housing dressing rooms and electrical equipment to run the rink. With a sustainable and consistent  surface the facility could be utilized by individuals as well as minor teams and schools providing outdoor seating for fantastic events.

Midtown Brewery in conjunction with Cribs Hotel in Wellington maintained an outdoor rink for a number of years. We had the Wellington Dukes do a skills competition attended by local school kids. It was one of my favourite community events that I have ever been a part of.

Marc Crawford had his Vancouver Canucks team drop into Victoria Harbour a few years ago for a little practice and fun. Once again, another fantastic community event. These types of events could be held at an outdoor rink that had the infrastructure of a small grandstand.

The topic was brought up on our Total Sports Quinte podcast .We received a reply from a former Quinte resident Chris Hazard who lives in Toronto now. He reminded us with a picture of the Greenwood Park development in Toronto that not only has an outdoor rink with dressing rooms and grandstand, but a public skating area with skating trails attached. A truly fantastic leisure area.

  This facility could be utilized in the warmer months as outdoor basketball courts as well, which is another resource we are in dire need of. We recently ran a terrific story about this need in our Total Sports Quinte magazine written by Geordie Mitchell of the Belleville Spirits.

Belleville has a history of identifying these recreational gaps in service and addressing them in a very professional way. Our playing fields in Belleville and Trenton are as good as anywhere in the province. Soccer, football and rugby have been well served with the improvements made in this area over the course of the last few years.  The addition of a “GreenwoodPark” style outdoor  skating and basketball facility would be a terrific addition to the Quinte community.

Just as Walter Gretzky knew, these rinks courts and playing fields are at the heart of developing a strong community by fostering these strong family ties.