HAY RIVER (Northwest Territories) — It's a cold Saturday afternoon in March. The air from the tiny faces pressing up against Hay River's panoramic window immediately covers it in an icy fog. A few dozen youth hockey players, all dressed in blue-and red jerseys, are eagerly waiting for a special group of guests.
There are many older hockey enthusiasts in the area who have been buzzing about Fisherman's Wharf while they play their annual Polar Pond Hockey Tournament. A row of 10 small rinks have been built on the frozen river, which gives the town its name. Near the banks, a forest of hockey sticks has been planted in a snow heap.
All sizes and abilities of skaters fill the ice. They make quick passes and move down the ice with just a few strong steps. One sheet is finished, and the team laughs and turns its attention to one another. The poor man hunches over the snowy boards, struggling to eat, and fighting off the after-effects from last night's party. A team of four is seen walking towards its goal in inflatable squirrel costumes, an impulse purchase meant to remind them that their mission is to have fun. Since 2008, the regional tournament is a regular fixture on Canada's calendar. It offers a chance to anyone living in the Northwest Territories' small towns to let go of the long, dark winter.
“This event is a huge success for our community. Terry Rowe (31), tournament organizer. He says that it is great to be out on the pond in sunny days and enjoy the nice weather today.
From 10,000 feet above 60th parallel, the Ice seems to touch everything. A ribbon of road runs around the frozen Great Slave Lake's western half. A railway streak heads south towards Alberta, and the tiny outcropping that houses Hay River, which is home to 3,000 people, follows the tracks. The ice seems unending and unyielding beyond this.
It shaped Canada, removing half of Canada's glaciers from the south a few million years ago. It shaped lives for anyone who was brave enough to risk it. From the Dene people, who have been here for thousands years, to the miners arriving in the last two centuries, the impact of the ice on their lives, food, clothes, and travel habits — all these things can influence a person's view of who they are.
The ice seems less reliable for many people living in Hay River and other northern Canadian territories. The ice is no longer reliable, and so are the cultural institutions that have been shaped by it such as pond-hockey. The Polar Pond Hockey tournament this year was the first to take place in full force over the past four years. It was the weather that ruled before COVID made plans for 2020 and 2021. As volunteers prepared the rinks to host the 2019 tournament, the temperatures rose above freezing. The river ice was becoming soupy. It was too warm to play hockey during the last days of winter, in one of North America’s northernmost cities.
This weekend's forecast does not include any threat of heat. At the airport, the brightly colored Air Tindi plane appears through the panoramic windows. Parents begin to bundle their children and get ready to welcome the visitors to the tarmac. When the plane touches down, they march out waving welcome signs, pompoms and homemade noisemakers. They aren't often visited in Hay River by Canadian hockey royalty.
The plane carries four Olympic medals, five Stanley Cup rings, and the players who won them. The new hockey stars sign autographs and pose for photos until their hands become too stiff from the cold. They will be enjoying the national pastime outdoors on frozen ponds and rivers, lakes, and in their backyards.
Agosta explained, “My parents made an outdoor rink in my backyard. It was a great memory.” Our basement was our dressing room. The music would be played and then we'd climb up the steps to the ice. We'd stay on the rink for hours. They used to have a hard time getting us off the ice.
They are also here as ambassadors for the Climate & Sport Initiative, a group attempting to use the power of sports to raise awareness about the dangers of climate change. Agosta, a Vancouver resident, feels it is unfortunate that she will not be able offer the same winter memories her parents gave her. The season for skating on outdoor ice safely is decreasing as the planet heats.
Researchers around the globe have found evidence that outdoor hockey's cold weather is becoming less frequent and less predictable. Researchers in northwest Ontario discovered that lakes are now frozen for shorter periods than they were in 1970. Their research revealed that the lakes in their region are now frozen for shorter periods of time than they were in 1970.Over the past 50 years, the average time that the lakes have remained frozen has fallen at an average of four days each decade.
One group of friends from hockey noticed a decline in the time they spent outside skating. They wanted to verify their stories of longer winters. Helsinki, Finland is roughly at the same latitude that Hay River. A local meteorologist was consulted and historical data was used to show that outdoor skating seasons for Finns have dropped from approximately 80 days per annum in the late 1800s down to less than 50 days per annum in the 21st Century.
The friends were so disturbed by their findings, they formed Save Pond Hockey in 2015. They have been hosting tournaments to raise funds for charities working in climate change in Canada and Finland since 2015.
Steve Baynes (the group's CEO, and co-founder) stated that “climate change seems like something far away or a distant problem for a lot people.” “But the changes that are occurring right now and in everyone's backyard are amazing. The shortening of winters is one way my friends and I feel connected with hockey players all over the globe.
It is still a controversial topic to determine where ice hockey was born. One claim comes from Deline, a small town located a few hundred miles north of Hay River. Sir John Franklin, who oversaw the military station there in 1820s, wrote about his soldiers playing hockey on the nearby frozen lake. Montreal hosted the first indoor formal recorded game in 1875. According to Save Pond Hockey's research more than a third has disappeared from the outdoor season since then.
Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo in Ontario is expecting the season to continue decreasing at an increasing pace in the most densely populated areas of Canada. Robert McLeman, an environmental sciences professor, is part of a group of researchers who have been monitoring outdoor ice hockey conditions over the past decade using a crowd-sourced survey from backyard rink-makers called RinkWatch. The same decline patterns have been observed in approximately 1,500 reports that were submitted by amateur rink-makers.
McLeman stated that they expect at least 34% more outdoor skating seasons to disappear by the end this century in places like Toronto and Montreal. Some of their participants have reached a point in their lives where they need to decide whether the effort required to maintain and build their outdoor rinks for the brief time they are frozen is worth it. His team is regularly contacted by local governments to see if funding outdoor public skating surfaces is still feasible.
He said, “It's becoming an extremely real cost-benefit analysis cities and families must make.” Although there are more serious consequences of climate change, the cultural loss is still significant. It would be a shame if this were to disappear.”
Hay River's Great Slave Lake and river don't normally thaw completely until May. It's ironic that the tournament organizers and Zamboni drivers were discussing the possibility of a warmer planet on March Day when temperatures reached minus-30.
Residents are alert and aware of changes in the weather, which is crucial for a town that relies on forecasting accurately. These unexpected warm patches have brought on a series of devastating floods, as well as slowed down the industries that depend on the ice roads connecting small towns and mining operations.
Robert Bouchard (Hay River's former deputy mayor, and one of the original organizers of the hockey tournament), stated that it was colder than before. “We aren't the Bahamas, it's getting warm.”
The 2019 cancellation was still on Terry Rowe's mind this past year when he learned that the Climate & Sport Initiative was looking to partner with local tournaments throughout Canada to raise awareness about the changing climate. Although the promise of a few pro hockey stars for the final tournament was more than enough to grab Rowe's attention. However, he also jumped in to the climate awareness pitch.
Rowe organized an auction to raise funds for an electric-powered Zamboni to be installed at the local ice arena. As Bud Lights began to pour over their tables and their pockets, attendees, mostly blue-collar players, listened attentively as a series speakers addressed the growing challenge of a problem that is often dismissed or considered too political.
Ference, an ex-Oiler and Edmonton-area resident who won a Stanley Cup trophy with the Bruins during his 16 year NHL career, stated that “that's what sports is all about.” “We all want the exact same things. We all want clean air, clean drinking water, and a safe environment for our children. Although we may need to agree on how to get there each person wants the same thing. Sports can play a part in bringing everyone back to the same place, and I believe that that's an important role.
Ference has been conscious of how his actions have impacted the environment his whole life. As a boy, Ference was responsible for his family's compost pile and he also carried the same Red Wiggler composting bugs with him from Pittsburgh to Calgary and Boston to Edmonton. He met David Suzuki, a scientist, activist, and television host during his time in Calgary (2003 to 2007). They started tracking the carbon footprint of all the travel his team made throughout the season.
A small group of his teammates and Ference purchased carbon offset credits in his final season in Calgary. This was a new concept at that time to reduce their environmental impact. Ference claims that more than 500 players signed up for the hundreds of dollars to offset their carbon footprint from the season. Ference said the players' union supported the idea.
Ference works now for the NHL. His role is to help build the league’s youth hockey program, and to pitch in on the league’s efforts to curb hockey’s impact on the climate and raise awareness of the changing climate through its NHL Green program. Ference said that it was an easy decision to fly to Hay River for the Polar Pond Hockey tournament.
“A tournament like that, it's the same as a marriage or party. Ference said that the tournament is a way to have fun and enjoy life. “Up north, when there's ice everywhere it's just an excuse to get together when you most need it. It's a great way to make new friends and share memories in a difficult time of year.
Ference and his fellow ex-pros bundled up for a Sunday morning skate with Hay River’s kids. Many of the tournament's attendees stayed inside the warm pavilion next to the river, where an non-profit group called Arctic Energy Alliance was holding a “climate Fair” to share information on local renewable energy solutions, and other climate actions. Yellowknife is the largest city in the region. It hosted booths that showcased its wood pellet biomass heating systems and solar power batteries.
Rowe, the tournament organizer who works as a real estate agent along with helping out with a group of businesses owned by his family, said he was excited to include the climate fair once the Climate & Sport Initiative got involved in bringing some celebrity players to the tournament.
“With the climate,” he stated. “So I'm looking forward learning about it.”
Rowe wasn't as excited about his selection to be one of the local players for Sunday's hour-long matchup with the NHLers and former Olympians.
He said, “They are going to dangle you.” Rowe smiled as they did. He lay on the ice, his face brightened by the success of an unsuccessful attempt to stop an odd-man rush that featured two players Rowe grew up watching on television.
Fans and friends didn't seem to notice the cold as the group walked around the rink, laughing and chirping among themselves. The pros also smiled as they had the opportunity to play their game in its purest form.
Rowe indicated that he would like to continue working with Save Pond Hockey on future tournaments. After Sunday's game, players and fans gathered together to enjoy their last celebratory drinks. The conversation quickly turned to how happy everyone was to be back. They were happy to be back together after three years without it and hoped to continue the annual tradition as long as possible.
This report was contributed by John Mastroberardino, ESPN.