Winter doesn’t officially start until Friday, but for people who like to skate, the season was off and gliding Saturday with the annual opening of the Emera Oval on the Halifax Common.
With sunshine and temperatures around 6 C, eager skating enthusiasts couldn’t have asked for a better kickoff to the next three months of speeding, snowplowing and taking the occasional tumble, preferably in well-padded snowpants.
As piped-in music ran the gamut from Billie Holiday to Billy Joel, experienced skaters sailed effortlessly among the helmeted novices moving at their own pace, or using the red plastic wedge-shaped skate aids to stay upright and keep moving forward in a relatively straight line.
For oval site supervisor Sean Street, it was a day he had been looking forward to since that first sudden snowfall back in November.
“We ended up with a beautiful day for the opening,” said Street, ice master with city contractor Nustadia Recreation. “It’s seven degrees right now and the sun is out.
“There’s some surface melt, which is fine for people to skate in, but the ice is holding and the sun won’t stick around long enough to cause much damage.”
Oval veterans Terry and Pat Phelan have been fans of the facility since it opened permanently following the 2011 Canada Games, and considered the ice to be just fine for doing laps on a gorgeous December Saturday afternoon.
The Rockingham couple have been keeping an eye on the schedule posted at www.halifax.ca/recreation/facilities-fields/emera-oval as well as the webcam that shows how busy the ice is, and picked the perfect time to drop down.
“It’s been great, I’ve really enjoyed it,” Pat said. “I’ve probably gone around 10 times already, and I’m up for some more.
“Considering the weather, I thought the ice was pretty good. There are a few soft spots, but just in the corners.”
Work crews started getting the oval ready on Friday, building up layers of ice on the concrete pad, which sits atop pipes circulating chilled subzero glycol at roughly -13 C. Street explains that the ice surface can be mantained with temperatures of up to 10 or 12 C, and there’s not much fear of seeing those for a few months.
But there are challenges. Early Saturday, the morning humidity and mist created a “peach fuzz” effect on the surface, which could have presented a challenge for the 8:30 a.m. speedskaters. But Street was able to fine-tune the surface with the Olympia ice conditioner (what most people would refer to as a Zamboni, just like calling any form of ibuprofen Advil), and get it just so for the speed demons with the long blades.
“You do start to form a sort of relationship with the ice, especially when it’s outdoors and changing every day,” Street said. “You wouldn’t believe how many variables there are in the type of ice you’re going to end up with based on what the weather is.
“When you’re up there on the Olympia, you are conditioning it and making it the best surface possible, and you start to take pride in your ability to recognize what you’re able to do with it.”
Street also gives credit to the staff working the skate rental counter, who have hundreds of pairs of skates to sharpen and safety gear to maintain. It’s certainly appreciated by parents like Sam Ortiz, with two of his four small children old enough to get on the ice.
Ortiz and his family love the availability of a variety of rental skates, especially when kids have such rapidly growing feet and it doesn’t make sense to buy new skates every time they go up a shoe size.
“This guy’s been waiting to skate,” he says, indicating his grinning son Daniel. “Now it’s finally open, he’s so happy.
“The kids are just learning to skate, and they’ve been really eager to start. Daniel can use the wedge to stay up and zoom around, and he’s just flying around on the ice.”
West-end resident Chris Gallant was eager to get on the oval as well. Living nearby with his wife and two daughters, it’s the perfect winter activity they can all enjoy in terms of convenience and healthiness, and a great way to get some brisk air in their lungs when getting to a ski slope isn’t an option.
Gallant didn’t grow up a strong skater but, being an avid skier, it became second nature fairly quickly.
“I didn’t play hockey as a kid, but coming over here once or twice a week, you never feel like you’re the worst skater on the ice,” he said with a smile.
Street smiled, too, when he glanced out the window at the flurry of activity on the ice. Since he started helping to maintain the surface at the oval, the annual December opening has become a Christmas tradition he looks forward to every year.
“Once we’re up and running, it’s pretty hard not to love it,” Street said. “It’s pretty unique. Not a lot of municipalities have something like this for the public that’s free and that everyone can enjoy so much.
“You can look out there at any moment during the public skate and you’ll see someone having a really, really great time.”