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Frozen Fun: A History of Outdoor Ice Rinks in Canada

Canadians are keeping the outdoor rink tradition alive, even in the face of climate change

An outdoor ice rink surrounded by a field covered in snow. There are people on the ice skating around, with a hockey net placed at one end. The sun is setting in the background.

Courtesy of Braden Barwich (Unsplash)

If you’ve ever spent a winter day happily gliding over a frozen pond, river or backyard rink, you’re not alone. People have been skating on ice for more than 5,000 years, although the first steel-blade skates weren’t developed until the 14th century by the Dutch. 

Skating is a quintessentially Canadian pastime and sport. It’s been popular since the mid-19th century, when the country’s first outdoor commercial rink was built in Montreal. The Amateur Skating Association of Canada was formed in 1887 and, in 1914, a figure skating organization was set up. The world’s first covered rink was constructed in Quebec City in 1852 and, just over a decade later, Halifax built the first permanent covered skating rink in British North America.

An indoor ice rink with high ceilings, in black and white. There are a few people skating on the ice and there are 3 bright lights above them.An old, black and white image of a crowd at an outdoor ice rink.

Some outdoor skating rinks have even become the stuff of legend—Wayne Gretzky’s childhood home, in Brantford, where he famously honed his skills on (backyard) ice, is a designated heritage property.   

Winter Games

Today, Canadians still spend countless hours skating on backyard rinks, frozen lakes and rivers across the country. 

The International Ice Hockey Federation estimates that there are about 5,000 outdoor ice rinks across Canada today, almost twice as many as there are indoor rinks—the most of any country except Russia. And many communities host their own community outdoor rinks during the winter season, including Ottawa’s 7.8-kilometre Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s largest naturally frozen ice rink.

A long outdoor ice rink, with a crowd of skaters out on the ice. In the background there is a bridge and beyond that is a large, castle-esque building.

On Thin Ice

Outdoor rinks need cold average daily temperatures, ideally below –10°C, to be skateable. But in recent years, warmer winters have made outdoor rinks in some parts of Canada scarcer and harder to maintain. 

In response, citizen science initiatives such as RinkWatch, at Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University, conduct research and monitor the temperatures and conditions at rinks and ponds across the country. Rinkwatch also acts as an online gathering place for outdoor rink enthusiasts, where community members can share tips on how to build backyard rinks that can withstand higher average winter temperatures.

A map of Canada with icons of hockey skaters on it, where a majority of the icons are situated at the bottom of the country.

The project is an opportunity “to communicate with the public about why it's important to tackle climate change,” says co-founder and environmental scientist Robert McLeman. “Because if we love winter, if we love outdoor skating, then we need to do something.”


Pigeon Hockey Supply Co.’s Pigeon Pack makes getting to and from the rink a breeze, and it’s designed by a Manitoba-based company. Pick yours up in the CAA Holiday Gift Guide, at some local CAA Stores and online.