Wallace Emerson outdoor hockey rink

Does the city want to close down Toronto’s cherished outdoor hockey rinks?

For over a year, Jared Westreich has been organising community opposition to a city plan to get rid of the outdoor hockey rink at Wallace Emerson Park in the city’s west end and replace it with an ice skating pad.

Westreich, an engineer who works for a medical technology start-up, moved to the west-end neighbourhood in October, 2021 and hits the ice several times every week to play shinny hockey with anywhere from 30 to 50 other people as people in this area have for a long time.

“For the past four decades, people have used the rink to stay active during the winter and build friendships within the community,” Westreich says. “While playing in an indoor league is extremely expensive, the city’s free outdoor rinks make hockey much more accessible. Wallace Emerson and all neighbouring rinks are all very busy, a trend that will continue as thousands of people move into nearby developments.”

The entire area will change as part of the redevelopment of neighbouring Galleria Mall into a mixed-use condominium neighbourhood featuring three towers and approximately 2,900 residents. A new community centre is already under construction.

Westreich says he was given a few reasons for replacing the rink including concern for the “visual impact of a rink in the summer” and “about the noise of pucks on boards.”

“They also said that there are other hockey rinks nearby,” Westreich adds.

Last January, Westreich, along with Joe Sismondo and Patrick Meredith-Karam started a petition on Change.org that currently has almost 5,000 signatures.

A year ago, the city councillor in the area was Ana Bailao who has since retired from politics and following the recent municipal election has been replaced by Alejandra Bravo. Westreich says, he’s had a much more positive response from the new councillor.

Bravo’s response, however, is not definitive.

“My team and I have been in active discussions with City staff regarding the Wallace Emerson hockey rink, and the changes included in the Wallace Emerson Community Centre and Park project,” said Bravo, in a statement. “We have heard from a group of community members about their interest in preserving the rink, and have shared this feedback with City staff who are leading the project. At this time, we understand that City staff are working to provide community members with detailed information and reports on the consideration of the hockey rink in the project plans that were developed, as well as the results of community consultation conducted in 2018, which approved a project plan that included an ice skating trail and multi-use ice pad. Phase 1 construction on the Wallace Emerson Community Centre and Park project is currently underway, but my team and I are committed to continuing to engage with residents to ensure that this project works well for everyone in the community.”

Westreich says, the consultation from 2018 only considered the input of a handful of people.

“The consultations entirely took place in the summer months and no direct effort was made to seek feedback from rink users. In the park department’s 20 year facility plan, they stated that the number of rinks should be reduced in the future and focus should be on leisure skating instead of hockey,” Westreich says. “The feedback that the city used to justify their decision was based on a roundtable discussion with approximately 10 people. The questionnaire, which was only filled out by 43 people (compared to 4,600 who have signed the petition), had a significant portion of people listing shinny hockey as the most important activity to accommodate.”

There is also a question regarding whether or not switching the design is feasible from a technical standpoint because, Westreich says, the City said it would require “costly changes to the new community centre’s electrical and mechanical systems.”

“However the “Community Heart Option 3″ design involves a redistribution of the refrigerated area, not an expansion and therefore several rink refrigeration experts have told us that it would not impact the electrical or mechanical systems,” he adds.

Toronto has more than 50 refrigerated outdoor rinks. It is the most of any city in the world, and one of the defining characteristics that make Toronto so special in the wintertime. And, it appears to be eroding, which Westreich would like to stop.

“The outdoor rink is a place where anyone can go after school or work and meet new people, spend time with friends and get exercise, all for free,” he says. “Our outdoor rinks provide accessible social and recreational opportunities that are increasingly important due to the crushing affordability crisis. Outdoor rinks have such a strong impact on so many lives and it’s crucial that the city understands the value of preserving the system that’s been developed.”

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO