Skating Outdoors in Stenson Park: Building a rink builds community too

By Kim Zippel –

Two young men in their twenties are skating on an outdoor rink in Stenson Park near Fleming College.  When asked if they are college students, they reply in the negative, “We skated on this rink as kids, and came back to see if it was still as good as we remember”.  

In another year, on another wintery day, local Fleming students are on the ice.  One of these students is known for including eager youngsters in games of shinny. Turns out, the young man has left five little brothers and sisters behind to come to school in Peterborough – and he misses them.

Year after year countless memories are made on the outdoor rink that John Holmes painstakingly builds and maintains behind his home.  An outdoor rink is an important part of John’s own childhood memories as his father before him practiced the annual ritual of producing an ice surface for family and friends. 

Growing up near a river that never froze, with a  protective mom who couldn’t swim, the big side yard: all of these factors made an outdoor rink the best and safest solution to winter play.  This is also when John learned the science of reading the weather, and the art of making the perfect skating surface.  And that’s what makes the present Stenson rink special: the dedication of someone with a lifetime of experience and passion for making good ice.

John scrapes snow away from the ice to see how it looks after a snowfall.
John checks the ice after a warm-up and snowfall have created challenges for the rink.

It all started soon after Nancy and John Holmes moved into their new house on Pinewood Drive circa 1991.  The enthusiasm of two neighbourhood children sparked the idea of building an ice rink in Stenson Park, and John took on the challenge, even though the first of their two sons had recently arrived in the world.  

A sandy area, designated for playground equipment, was the initial location of the rink.  John used his own garden hoses, and with help from the children – “that lasted about two days,” he recalls with a laugh – he built a 50 square foot rink.  Twenty-one years later, long after the park got its playground equipment, the Stenson Park rink ritual continues. The location has shifted slightly, to the northeast corner of the park, while the size has increased substantially to 75 by 120 feet of board-lined ice.

A long shot of the rink on a mild February day.
The rink sits atop a low plateau in the NE corner of Stenson Park.

As part of the transition to the bigger space, John had to modify his water line to increase volume, and this included buying bigger hoses. Eventually his diligence and dedication to the rink resulted in the city installing, at no cost, a one inch water supply below the frost line.  This meant that water to flood the rink no longer had to come from the Holmes’ house, and it brought the water closer to the rink.  Today, the city supplies hoses and a shovel (Holmes’ buy several extra shovels) to each of the 40+ community maintained outdoor rinks in Peterborough. 

John and dog Smudge stand under the arbor connecting the Holmes' backyard to the park.
An arbor and gate connect the ‘Holmestead’ grounds to Stenson Park and the skating rink beyond.

 

City sponsored additions over time include picnic tables that stay put year round, and hockey nets.  Unfortunately, the city’s nets came without mesh, so John has been supplying the nets himself.

 

Over the years, John has collected enough abandoned pucks from the ice to fill a rink-side milk crate that stockpiles pucks to fuel future games.  To help equip the pick-up games, and when Peterborough’s Petes were still using wooden, rather than composite, sticks John visited the Memorial Centre to collect slightly damaged hockey sticks – chipped blades, slightly cracked shafts, and beat up goalie sticks were left by the ice for those who needed them.

John Holmes and dog Smudge pose in the middle of a snow covered rink on a cold, bright February day.
Smudge braves the cold with owner John to pose on the ice surface during the coldest day to date in 2016.

But that’s not all that’s left on, or near the rink; there’s the Holmes’ unofficial lost and found. John retrieves lost items and over the years has found:

  • coats
  • one skate 
  • boots (did someone walk home in their skate guards?)
  • a goalies’ neck guard
  • water bottles
  • mittens galore, and

he has returned a mobile phone to its owner.  In regard to the ‘lost’ there seems to be an unwritten respect for this space in the park.  Only once has a hockey net gone missing, and it didn’t go far, so was quickly retrieved. The picnic tables remain in good shape, and the periphery is nearly free from litter.

This respect also translates to the shared use of the rink.  “It can look pretty small when you get 8 to 10 college kids playing hockey on it” says John.  But the big kids are careful of the little ones, and often include them; “they’re [younger kids] really happy if  they get to touch the puck”.  And somehow games of tag integrate with hockey and free skating without incident.  The kids police themselves, and a gentle reminder of language is the only intervention that has ever been needed.

But John does remember one somewhat harrowing moment at the rink. “Nancy and I were returning from a walk with our dog, and we saw paramedics and a stretcher by the rink”; turns out it was mock-up exercise for college students taking the paramedics program at Fleming.  While the skating rink provided a realistic, local training opportunity, the reality of the exercise was a bit unnerving for John.

When asked why he carries on with the tradition of building ice in Stenson Park, John reflects on the more intangible rewards of his efforts.  “It’s enjoying the sound of laughter; being out there alone on a cold winters night, flooding the ice and listening to the creak of the boards as the air cools; the crack and snap of the ice as it freezes; it’s  hearing the ‘ding’ the puck makes when it connects with the post.”  

And, when the rink starts to melt in March, it’s a bittersweet feeling.   As the angle of the spring sun brings more heat to the ice surface, metal warms, and the nets sink.  Warm afternoon air sucks the moisture from the surface and the ice crystallizes, and then it’s all over for another year.

Holes have formed in the ice alongside the boards.
The first week of February 2016 brought some ice eating warmth.

 

Building and maintaining a rink is hard work, it takes time, and there are expenses.  The Holmes family currently contributes the lighting that makes nighttime use of the rink safer, more enjoyable.  “Should the City put a light in?” I ask.  “I’d prefer not,” replies John.  “At the moment, I can control the light for flooding and late night usage as opposed to it operating off a timer; the ‘on demand’ approach works well for the rink”. 

 

 

 

But there are ways you can help John out.  Neighbours and supporters can:

  • contact John to help with starting and maintaining the ice;
  • collaborate to find, or purchase new metal, official sized hockey nets with mesh; or
  • make a cash donation which is  not expected, but would be accepted and put to good use.
Hockey nets in John's backyard showing their wear and tear.
Hockey nets see a lot of action, for example these nets are a mere 3 years old and already need replacing.

In a neighbourhood where “you are either known by your dog, or as the guy who builds the rink,” John is a quietly appreciated local hero.  Someone who builds community by building a rink; a rink where grown-ups come back to play to see if it’s still as good as they remember it once was, and find that it still is.

To support the Stenson Park rink, you can contact John by phone: (705) 745-2794, or by leaving a comment on this post.

5 thoughts on “Skating Outdoors in Stenson Park: Building a rink builds community too”

  1. Hello Mrs. Zippel,

    My name is Alex Holmes and I am the proud son of the man you have very beautifully written about. I wanted to thank you for your time and dedication in sitting down with my father and having an interest in hearing his story. Over the years I have seen many pay homage to my father and his work on the rink. But you have managed to capture it very eloquently in my personal opinion. I thank you for sharing his story in the hopes that others will be inspired, and will take up the community rink shovel as it were, in order to maintain this proud tradition. Thank you again. Made me very proud of my father as a local home town neighbourhood hero.

    Regards,

    Alex Holmes

    1. Hi Alex,

      Thank you for your kind words. Mark and I have always enjoyed seeing the use the Stenson Park rink gets. We often see students, families, and young hockey players walk by our house, skates and sticks in hand. I’m only sorry that it took so long for me to sit down for a chat with your Dad, and appreciate the time he took to share such great neighbourhood stories. Oh, and please call me Kim!

  2. Awesome article Kim! My friends always wondered about John “the guy who floods the rink in the middle of the night”, well now they know why he does it–for the love of the game!

    1. Hi Mitch, so nice to hear from you! I’ll bet you found some time to skate in Stenson Park when you were younger too. Thanks for taking the time to comment; I’m sure John will appreciate that the neighbours knew he was out on the job in the wee hours, making ice.

    2. Hello Mrs Kim

      Teriffic story of John our local hero who we love and appreciate!
      Thank you!

      There is more to the beginnings of this teriffic Stenson Park(Saturn Pk) Ice Rink story not recorded here yet.
      Myself, Charlene or Janet would be happy to tell that humble winter conception of 1993!

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