Armed with a shovel, Cottam retiree helps keep outdoor skating tradition alive

COTTAM — Graham Murray is doing his bit to ensure a time-honoured Canadian tradition is alive, well and not skating on thin ice.

Murray, a retired high school teacher, has taken on the role of outdoor ice manager at the frozen Rotary Park pond in Cottam.

There are no Zambonis — ice clearing is done by hand with a snow shovel or, when the snow is too deep, Murray’s snowblower.

For Murray, clearing the ice has become a labour of love — a passion delivered with its own little tweaks.

After each snow-clearing session Murray places one of the many pucks he finds in the snow at the centre of the rink — much like the Lucky Loonie buried at centre ice before the 2002 Olympic showdown between Canada and the United States.

“Skating on a frozen pond is one of those things that defines us as Canadians,” he said. “Playing hockey outdoors is baked into our DNA.”

He said Canadians know that in their bones that skating outdoors in the cold is different.

It’s skates digging into hard ice, ice shards flying. It’s the nostril-pinching cold. The flaming red cheeks. It’s numb toes.

“I played a little organized hockey when I was a kid and I skated on River Canard, Turkey Creek and Ojibway Park,” he said.

“But when I think of the memories playing hockey or being on skates, it’s not about the indoor rinks, even though I had experiences there, it was the outdoor stuff.”

A frozen pond, lake or river is where parents take their kids to learn to skate, where grandparents spend time with their grandkids and where there are no user fees, no limits on ice time and no coaches barking about the need to back check.

Skating on a frozen pond is as Canadian as a Hudson Bay blanket.

Murray, who lives across the street from the pond, said he sees all types using the rink — mothers with children, girls and boys playing hockey — and seniors.

“I saw an older gentleman, just by himself, he drove up, got out a pair of skates, put on a helmet and skated around for half hour, 45 minutes by himself.”

Murray said Essex County has a “limited window” for outdoor skating because of its mild winters.

Some winters an early heavy snowfall can wipe out any chance of the pond being used as an outdoor rink.

It’s in these situations where Murray would like to see the Town of Kingsville step in to help clear large dumps of snow and free up the ice.

I had no idea there was a secret snow-clearer out here. It’s great to see the kids outdoors — not behind screens.

he said he recently saw a couple of parks and recreation employees checking out the rink.

“I said to my wife, look at those two guys. I bet they get it. They understand from their own history as kids,” Murray said.

“I could see them really getting … into this and going back to their boss and hey, why don’t we put water on this, put down a fresh coat of ice.”

Before amalgamation, the Gosfield North Fire Department would drive a pumper truck to the park edge and flood the ice.

Murray said the park has a fire hose coupling that is uses in summer to water the grass and he felt the same coupling could be used in winter to flood the ice.

The work Murray does clearing snow is appreciated by Cottam residents who use the rink.

“I had no idea there was a secret snow-clearer out here” said Sarah Wiebe, who was skating Saturday with her two daughters, Liviya and Odessa.

“It’s great to see the kids outdoors — not behind screens,” she added.

Murray enjoys hearing comments like Wiebe’s. He said the rink is a “county landmark” that has special meaning for many Cottam residents.

“Cottam could build its own full-size indoor arena and people would still skate out there.”

When Murray lets his imagination run wild, he has ideas about what Rotary Park and its outdoor rink could become.

The pond was once much larger and a portion was filled with boulders that once rimmed the pond. Murray would like to see the boulders moved and fill dug up so the pond could be returned to its original size.

He would also like to see lighting around the pond upgraded so kids could skate and play hockey later into the night. The fire department could again flood the ice. Fire pits could be placed around the rink.

But Murray likes to dream big.

He would like to see Sportsnet’s Ron MacLean and Tara Slone come down to Cottam for an episode of Hometown Hockey.

“Wouldn’t that be fantastic?” he said.

Earlier this month, Peter Kuitenbrouwer, a former columnist and writer with the National Post, wrote an article in the Globe and Mail about the joys — and difficulties — of skating on Grenadier Pond in Toronto.

Much like Rotary Park in Cottam, there was a time in Toronto when the municipality would clear the pond of snow, drill holes and pump water over the frozen pond to give it a fresh coat of ice.

That time is gone and now there is a bewildering array of signs, flags and coloured streamers offering conflicting messages. Some say, “No access, no skating” others imply skaters will ignore the warnings so they should know they are skating at their own risk.

Kuitenbrouwer, a self-styled libertarian when it comes to outdoor skating, offered the city a simple message.

He wrote: “It is winter. It is cold. This is something to celebrate. Pandemic closed your gym? Pond is open. Carpe glacies (seize the ice).”

In the Globe story, Kuitenbrouwer said he and his friends have decided to ignore the signs. His attitude? “Just leave me alone,” he told the Observer.

In an interview, Kuitenbrouwer praised Graham Murray’s work clearing the ice at Rotary Park and wished him well in efforts to enlist the town’s help clearing snow and flooding the ice surface.

“I think sometimes you need this kind of individual initiative,” he said.

Kuitenbrouwer said he hopes Murray is successful in talks with the town, but added: “Maybe his reward will come In heaven … but maybe his reward will be all those smiling faces and people skating on the pond.”

Kuitenbrouwer’s Globe article is at: