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Build a rink and Newmarket kids will learn how to play hockey

The sixth season wraps up at Newmarket Lions Park community hockey rink
March 11, 2020
Kim Champion

If you ask single parent Jennifer Chase, the Newmarket Lions Park community hockey rink is the best thing since sliced bread.

Now in its sixth year and run entirely by local resident Chris Howie with help from a dedicated group of volunteers, the outdoor rink at 424 D’Arcy St. is a place where neighbourhood kids and their families learn how to play the sport, support those less fortunate, and form friendships that carry on long after warming temperatures melt the ice.

Chase and her son, William, 9, were at the rink nearly every day it was open, which, this season, counted far fewer days than in past winters given fluctuating temperatures and a mix of snow and rain not favourable to good, solid ice.

William wanted to play hockey last winter, but Chase said she couldn’t make it work financially on her own to put him in a league.

“When I first found out about the rink in 2018-2019, I thought this is perfect. William can try out hockey, see if he likes it, so I managed to rally the troops and get some loaned hockey gear and took him to the outdoor rink for the first time in January 2019,” Chase said. “He fell in love with it.”

Chase said her son’s hockey skills dramatically improved at the community rink, where older skaters are encouraged to mentor younger ones all in a free-form fashion.

“William didn’t know how to handle a puck, it’s one thing to skate, to hold a stick, and to play floor hockey, but it’s a whole other ball game to skate and hold a stick and shoot a puck,” she said. “There were a couple of older kids there one day, maybe between 12 and 14 years old, and they were just playing around. I asked if they would help him, and they did. The young teens spent about 45 minutes with William, teaching him how to shoot and handle the puck, sharing tricks for this and that.”

“It was the most beautiful thing ever,” said Chase. “At the end as they were leaving, I went up to them and said you guys need to know you’ve made an incredible difference in this kid’s life, thank you so much. For him to have the opportunity to have so much extra ice time for free, and to practise, it’s amazing.”

William is now enrolled in Newmarket minor hockey and about two weeks ago he scored his first goal at a game.

“It was like the perfect shot,” the proud mom said.  “And William said it was because of all his practise at the rink to make that goal."

What’s just as important for Chase is the connections her young son has put together about life and community.

“Over the summer, William realized that Chris (Howie) does the rink because he loves kids and hockey. He doesn’t get paid. And for him to have those examples of tremendous volunteerism and giving back to the community, as a parent, it’s really inspiring for me for him to have those examples. Here’s real-life examples of people that you know who are doing things that you benefit from in our community.”

Chase nominated Howie for a Town of Newmarket volunteer distinction award, the Herb Cain Memorial Award for contribution to local sports, which he won in 2019.

The positive impact is evident, Chase said with a laugh, when she and William are at Gorman pool on a blistering hot summer day and he’s wishing it was winter so he could play hockey on the rink.

The Chases and many other families watched with bated breath this season as Howie and some volunteers made nine “saves” of the rink due to weather.

On March 8, volunteer Matt Richard posted on the rink’s Facebook page the unusually warm recent temperatures has shrunk the ice and that given the upcoming forecast of above zero, sun and rain, the 2020 season is a wrap.

Howie said if he had his way, every day of the rink season would be cloudy and -10C.

“This winter, I have to say, it’s our sixth now, and we continue to have these ups and downs, it seems like there’s always a thaw at the end of January and February, it’s sort of the new normal,” said Howie.

But from the experience of five winters, he knows how to get the rink prepared. This season, Howie built the snow banks surrounding the rink high to better hold water in. And, whenever he is shovelling or plowing, he builds the snow banks up inside the boards as much as possible.

On the north side of the rink that gets the most sun, the banks are still eight-feet wide and four-feet tall.

“I literally try to build these glaciers up because once the snow banks are gone it’s really over to Mother Nature and water always seems to find a way to get out of the ice,” he said.

Howie said he couldn’t provide all the free community ice time without the help of volunteers, which include his own son, Connor, 6, his dad, Doug, and right-hand neighbour, Richard.

“The one thing that’s been rewarding with my son, Connor, is he always wants to help me out, to shovel and flood the rink, and loves the game,” Howie said. “And it’s been great seeing his hockey development, but also him loving the rink and helping out. Thank God my wife is understanding about me heading out the door at awful hours, but that’s what it takes.”

“I try to give the kids as many days as possible and I don’t want to give up,” said Howie, who puts in about 400 hours each winter flooding, maintaining, building, walking around and picking up leaves or seeds.

“The nice part about down here is it’s almost a little micro-climate,” he said. “We’re in a bit of a valley, when the wind comes out of the west, it’s definitely below zero, but on the other side I have a few buildings that throw off heat. The rink is sitting on top of that green sports court so that throws its own heat from underneath.”

“I kind of get it both ways. The sun is the worst for the rink, and the elements, when there’s rain or snows. Once it snows, I have to get it off as soon as possible because that ruins the ice,” he said.

Mother Nature aside, Howie said the 2019-2020 season has been marked by highlights including a well-attended Family Day, a Central York Girls Hockey Association girls’ skate for the Panthers and Cubs, a winter classic hosted by house league teams from Aurora, and the York Simcoe Express midget triple A and novice players event.

Those events helped contribute toward the collection of 1,500 pounds of food for the Newmarket Food Pantry and Belinda’s Place women’s shelter.

“The main reason I did the rink is to have a place for people to come together and play hockey as a family,” said Howie. “I’ve been at it for six years and there are lots of lessons learned.”

“I run the rink by age group. I want the young kids to get the good ice, and I don’t want the older guys flying around and taking slap shots scaring the younger kids or making them feel intimidated,” he said.

“I sometimes felt intimidated on the ice when I was a kid, and I don’t want any kid to feel that way so that’s why I run it by age group. The young kids get the nice smooth ice when it opens, then it’s opened up to older kids. And I reserve time for adults and encourage parents to skate with their kids.”

There’s so many distractions with techonology and people doing their own thing, Howie said.

“it’s been good to see families out here. Family Day was a nice highlight, a mix of parents and kids of all ages playing hockey together and that’s some of the reward I get for all the hours.”