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*All photos courtesy of Paul Zizka

Playing pond hockey in the winter is a must for many Canadians. In the nation’s most northern communities like Hay River in the Northwest Territories, it is as normal as making a coffee or taking the dog for a walk. And if you don’t have your own backyard rink to skate around on, someone nearby will. 

“I grew up playing in Hay River. It is a necessity here; we have very long winters,” says Terry Rowe, who was born and raised in Hay River. “I had a backyard rink half a block away from my house. I grew up playing with my older brothers there.”

The community sits on the south shore of Great Slave Lake and the mouth of Hay River and lies within the traditional territory of the South Slavey Dene people. Its frigid temperatures and easy access to water mean quality pond hockey rinks are accessible most of the winter. 

Its location, climate, and army of volunteers made it possible for Hay River to hold Canada’s inaugural Save Pond Hockey event this March. And the town of 3500 is no slouch when it comes to pulling off significant events. 

“If you get a few like-minded people, you can do anything, especially up here in the north,” Terry says. 

Canadian hockey celebrities are greeted by a welcoming committee upon their arrival in Hay river (Photo courtesy of Paul Zizka)

A Host On Hold

In 2018, Hay River hosted the Arctic Winter Games. Around 2500 athletes arrived to compete in dog mushing, snowshoe biathlon, and ice hockey. Every June, they also run Lobsterfest — an annual East Coast cook-off that brings in live music and is a significant fundraiser for the recreation centre. And the community calendar is full of social gatherings that satisfy every interest. 

However, almost everything has been on hold for the past few years, including pond hockey. In 2019, Polar Hockey had to cancel the tournament because a warm winter made it impossible to build rinks. 

“To make the rinks, we auger into the ice and pump water from the river onto the ice sheets to make it better to skate on,” Terry explains. “Then we ‘hot flood’ the rinks for 1-2 weeks. But if you’re sitting above or around 0 degrees, it’s not cold enough to freeze the hot water on the ice, making terrible and dangerous ice to skate on.”

Then when the pandemic hit, the 2020 event suffered as well. Indoor fundraising events were prohibited by the health authority, and teams backed out last minute, costing the community and Polar Pond Hockey money. Then in 2021, as the pandemic continued, Polar Hockey put its tournament on hold again.

“Covid played a huge role in many events and gatherings being cancelled. It was pretty devastating,” Terry says.

Deputy mayor Keith Dohey is also familiar with his community’s recent challenges. The born and bred local loves where he lives. For the past 11 years, the 32-year-old has served on the town council, organized Lobsterfest and curling events, and stayed busy delivering potable water to residents in the family business. 

“I just filled my stove with firewood that I cut 30 minutes away,” Keith says. “In the winter, I can walk or snowmobile out my back yard straight onto the river. In the summer, I’ve got a friend that lives up the river that will text me to come fishing and ten minutes later is picking me up on the bank behind my house. It’s not just who lives here that makes Hay River the place I want to spend my life; it’s where it is.” 

Keith has strong ties to the area. In the 1950s, his grandparents moved from a farm in Saskatchewan to Hay River to work in a booming commercial fishing industry at the time. He shares a story about his grandmother.

“In 1963, there was a major flood, and they had to move the town off of the island into a new town,” Keith says. “My grandmother worked as a telephone operator with Northwestel, and their work was flooded. They were essential, and they had to sit on their chairs, with garbage pails on their feet in the water, operating the switchboard. Not the health and safety that we have today obviously.”

Keith cares deeply about Hay River and the people who live there, which is why as a decision-maker and a businessman, one of the more pressing issues on his mind these days is climate change. 

“There are underground water mains here that are frozen because we had such a high water table last year,” Keith explains. “There’s a water line that feeds a lift station that our family business gets potable water from to deliver. This line is 60 years old, it has never been frozen, and it’s frozen solid right now. There’s a whole string of houses that don’t have running water.”

Planning for an uncertain future is what Keith and other city councillors and staff are trying to tackle right now. Patches of earth that were permafrost free for years are now found to be frozen, beaches enjoyed by locals and tourists are being flooded, and some communities in the territory were almost completely wiped out by record floods last year. 

“It’s concerning. It’s making things that were predictable, unpredictable,” Keith says. “People living down south might not believe in global warming, or climate change, or whatever your term is, but it is a reality, and we are the people that see the effects first.” 

Canadian Women’s Hockey League star and forward, Meghan Agosta, takes a break from a skate under the northern lights. (Photo courtesy of Paul Zizka)

Friendly Competition Could Save Our Ice

So last fall, when Keith and Terry learned about an opportunity to bring celebrity hockey players into Hay River and host a Save Pond hockey event at the same time, they were understandably interested.

“There was some funding available to bring in some athletes to and share the word of climate change,” Terry says. “We jumped all over that.”

Save Pond Hockey is about getting together and having fun. But what sets it apart from your average tournament is the climate change angle. Providing opportunities for locals to learn about and discuss the issue is a requirement from its co-organizer and sponsor, The Climate and Sport initiative. Hay River had no problem meeting it. 

They ran a climate change and energy fair, raised $20,000 at an auction to put towards an electric Zamboni, and held an all-star hockey game. They also screened Happening to Us, a 20-minute film made by teenagers living in Tuktoyaktuk. 

Terry and other locals were especially moved by the film and hoped that sharing it at the event was a way to get local decision-makers to take climate change seriously. 

“Their waters are rising year to year, which is affecting everything. Their fish harvest, their shores,” Terry Rowe says. “You know there’s only a matter of time before that’s probably unfixable. There [were] a lot of government people at this event. I’m hoping our voices are heard, and they can listen.” 

From a municipal and planning perspective, Keith Dohey felt hopeful about the event and how it helped grow community buy-in about climate change.

“I was really impressed. The more people understand, the better,” Keith says. “We can’t do things the way we did them 20 or 30 years ago. We are planning for this new reality.”

He has also noticed the conversations changing amongst locals.

“I’ve lived here all of my life now, I try to spend some time in the coffee shops listening to the old guys there, and you don’t hear conversations about climate change, it doesn’t really come up, and if anything, it’s denied,” Keith says. “But after this event and leading up to it, I’ve had five or six different conversations about it now with the older guys in town. It’s funny how just one event, an outdoor hockey tournament, seemed to spur those conversations.”

No ice is not an option

According to Rink Watch, a citizen science project that tracks the ice quality of backyard rinks, warmer winters mean that Canadians will lose over 30% of their skate time by the end of the century. 

All-star hockey players Craig MacTavish, Curtis Glencross, Meghan Agosta, and Andrew Ference get this, and it is also why they agreed to fly up to Hay River and participate in the event. So does Olympic gold medalist and hockey titan Hayley Wickenheiser. She is the athletic champion for the Climate and Sport Initiative.

“Climate change is affecting not only hockey but communities and people all around the world, and we need to do something about it,” Hayley says on the organization’s website. 

Like Hayley, Terry is aware of how a changing climate could impact winter life in his hometown. Over the past several years, labour strikes, construction, and Covid have limited access to indoor recreation facilities in Hay River. Terry has seen firsthand how much the community relies on its outdoor rinks. 

“All hockey, figure skating, curling, speed skating players and kids went without a rink for years, and our backyard rinks were essential to keeping the community and our kids active and happy,” Terry says. 

Next year, the national Save Pond Hockey tournament will be hosted in another community. But pond hockey, both on backyard rinks or community rinks, will be back, just like it always has been in Hay River. 

“Our winters would be darker and longer without pond hockey,” Terry says. “If you have never experienced a lack of sunlight, it’s difficult to describe, but it does affect a person’s energy, thoughts, and way of life. Sports and gathering with friends and family help you through those long dark days, and I want to make sure other kids in town get the same opportunity I had growing up here.”