Hazelton’s outdoor rink offers both hockey, and hope for the future

From coast to coast, family and friends are getting together to set up backyard rinks for the winter.

The same thing is happening in Hazelton, British Columbia. But this time it’s not for a small group of people, it’s for an entire community.

“It’s been a very remarkable experience, and it certainly has made us all aware of how important it is for community to pull together for its own good,” says Village of Hazelton Mayor Alice Maitland.

Over the past eight months, this small but important community in northwest B.C. has seen its hockey rink condemned, the roof torn down, and hundreds of children facing a winter with limited options close to home.

Today, they’re skating on a refurbished outdoor rink.

In the shadows of an iconic mountain range, the Hazelton arena might be the prettiest outdoor rink in any town in Canada.

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But it might also be the most important.

The end of an era

The 44-year history of the Ken Trombley Memorial Arena came to a sudden end on March 12 during a hockey practice for seven and eight-year-olds.

“It was quite a shock to literally be told to get off the ice and evacuate the building,” said Ryneld Starr, president of Hazelton’s Minor Hockey Association.

A structural engineer found a beam perilously close to falling on the ice, and there was already evidence the building’s foundation was shifting. The decision was made to close the arena immediately—a huge blow to a community with few amenities.

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“In the summer, we have fields we play soccer in, and we all have lakes…but absolutely nowhere that kids can go to learn to skate, or play hockey, or any winter sports,” said Maitland.

But the sudden loss of the arena didn’t just affect Hazelton. The town, along with New Hazelton, is the urban centre for a host of aboriginal communities between Smithers and Terrace, numbering close to 4,000 people. Children from Gitanyow, Kitwanga, Gitsegukla and Moricetown had been travelling to the Ken Trombley Memorial Arena for decades, taking part in the only viable activity in the winter.

“They say why don’t you do something different. There’s no gymnasium, there’s no cross-country skiing. This is it,” said Stacy Brown, coach of the Hazelton Figure Skating Club and a teacher at the local school.

“We top the charts in every bad stat there is for use in B.C., whether its poverty, suicide, school pregnancy, we top the charts…The kids in the Hazeltons, there’s a huge need for providing something positive that’s physical, to give a social outlook aside from going to school. There’s little for kids to be engaged with, and if we don’t provide a positive option, they don’t have a chance to benefit.”

Community members had known for some time that the clock was ticking on the arena, and had created an organization, Heart of the Hazeltons, to lobby and raise funds for a new recreation centre.

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But in northern B.C., where the tax base is low and industries are often non-existent or transient, it often takes time for infrastructure plans to come to fruition. Last winter, rinks in Dawson Creek and Mackenzie were closed for most of the winter because of issues that come with aging arenas without large maintenance funds.

READ MORE: Falling paint causes indefinite closure of Mackenzie’s hockey rink

“To find the kind of money that it takes to build a decent facility now, you certainly can’t find it in this community, where there are no industries, and it’s outside of this area that the mines and other industries operate,” says Maitland.

Starr says that the region has raised approximately one-third of the $15 million needed a new facility, and are now waiting to hear back on grant proposals to different government organizations.

However, the community still needed to find a way to get the kids on the ice this winter.

Tearing down and starting over

“We wanted somewhere for the kids to skate, and we didn’t know at that time what that meant,” said Brown.

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“A lot of us really felt that same sort of community where we’re all going to band together, we’re going to put our own money and time getting the area going again. We’ve got this project to get a new arena, but we need something to get us through,” added Starr.

Brown received some inspiration when her father-in-law told her about all the outdoor rinks in the Toronto area.

“I looked at our climate, and we’re at a similar latitude, and there’s a similar marine influence. Let’s give this a shot. It might not be perfect, and it might come with a lot of challenges.”

Hazelton got to work. With the exception of the dressing room and lobby, the entire arena was torn down. Volunteers stepped in to refurbish the concrete surface and boards, build a new lighting system, and restore power. The The Gitksan Government Commission, District of New Hazelton and even students from the local school all pitched to make the budget work.

Last week, the rink was opened to the public.

“The last few days we’ve been skating there, we’re out on the ice, and you see the sunset over the Seven Sisters, and we’re stomping our feet. It was pretty surreal,” said Brown.

“The volunteers in this community coming forward and the people putting their drive in has been fabulous. The gratitude of people in the community and the importance of this place for our kids and communities, not just this year but in the future.”

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The Ken Tremblay Memorial Arena, which was condemned this spring.
The Ken Tremblay Memorial Arena, which was condemned this spring.
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Looking to the future

Still, there are unique challenges when your only rink is exposed to the elements.

“We’ve told the kids be ready to shovel the ice surface off, it’ll probably be their warmup. The parents know they’ll have to chip in. We recognize the challenges, but we’re ready to meet them, and we’re going to do whatever it takes,” says Starr.

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Then there’s the matter of the “zamboni”.

“I’m 40 years old, when I was a kid playing we had a tractor for a zamboni. We still have that tractor,” says Starr.

“I would call it a Franekntractor. It’s been taken apart and fixed so many times…it’s too the point where sometimes our rink attendant has to scour the world to find parts.”

The next chapter for the Hazelton Arena comes on December 2. They were named finalists in the Aviva Community Fund, an annual event where $1 million is distributed to community projects throughout Canada.

WATCH: The “Hard Up in the Hazeltons” application

If Aviva selects Hazelton, they’ll replace the Frankentractor with a modern Zamboni. If not, they’ll get through the winter and keep their fingers crossed that their grant applications will come through.

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“If we are one of the winners that the grant is given to, then it will change the face of our community,” said Maitland.

“It’s been a very remarkable experience, and it certainly has made us all aware of how important it is for community to pull together for its own good, and to build a healthy place for its children.”

Either way, the hockey rink will continue to be a place of hope.

“I used to live in Vancouver, but I was born and raised in Hazelton. Moving back [in 2010] really allowed me to see the benefits of growing up there, and that’s the connected community. Everybody’s looking out for each other. We band together, and do whatever it takes to do things for their kids,” said Starr.

“I really, really appreciated being in a community like that…you know everybody’s going to give it their all and back each other up to make things happen. We don’t have the same amenities that larger ones do, but we’re going to try to provide what we can.”

Postscript: Hazelton was named one of the 10 winners by Aviva, and will get a new Zamboni this year

The outdoor arena in Hazelton, British Columbia, which opened for operations last week. Courtesy Marty Brown

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