The magic of the Oval

One morning at the pool where I swim, a few old-timers were talking about the winters of their youth.
One recalled regularly skating on the Northwest Arm, which amazed me. I’ve lived in Halifax for almost 30 years and I can only recall one winter in which the Northwest Arm froze over, and that was the polar vortex winter two years ago. Even then, it was so late in the winter and after all the big snows, that the ice wasn’t very good for skating.
Another gentleman mused on the morning’s weather, particularly nippy for early December. He fondly recalled the December days of his youth when skating conditions were perfect on Nova Scotia lakes. “I used to have my best skates of the winter in December because it was before all the big snows,” he said.
The lakes of Nova Scotia provide better skating conditions, but they are still spotty. They pale in comparison to the skating rinks of suburban Montreal where I grew up. They look just like the outdoor rink portrayed in Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater… at least that’s how I remember them.
I’ve done a few lake skates in Nova Scotia; there’s no better way to enjoy skating. The fresh air and the sunshine of a cold, crisp winter day are so invigorating that an indoor rink is a poor substitute.
That’s why I love the Oval, which is one of the best decisions I’ve seen our municipal government make. It was a no-brainer after it proved immensely popular during a trial period before the 2011 Canada Games, but they could just as easily have stuck to the original plan to tear down the temporary ice pad.
Now, our city has a great year-round recreation facility on what used to be a few seldom-used softball diamonds. There is already lots of room on the Halifax Common for that sport and branching out to provide some other options in the summer is great.
The trump card in this, though, is seeing hundreds of people enjoying the Common in winter, when it used to look like a barren tundra.
At night, it looks like the baseball diamond in Field of Dreams. Lit up like a beacon, it draws people out on cold winter nights. New Year’s Eve at the Oval has become a new tradition for many families and lunch-time skates for downtown office workers are a treat many Canadian cities cannot provide.
I’ve seen some heartwarming moments at the Oval in the seven years that it’s been open. I’ve seen immigrants and foreign students enjoying moments of pure Canadiana that they might not otherwise have experienced. The Oval provides access to skating the way a library provides access to reading.
One night, I saw a group of students from China taking pictures of themselves skating as lazy snowflakes drifted down. The flakes were backlit against the night sky and it surely made a pretty picture to send around the world to their families.
The learn-to-skate programs have made skating accessible to many people and helped them discover other sports such as hockey or speed-skating.
It’s hard to imagine that something as big as the Oval could get crowded, but it often is, even though it has as much ice surface as three NHL rinks. It can be frustrating at times, when you just want to cut loose and skate a few laps, but I take this opportunity to watch the crowd, and see all the people experiencing something that most places in Canada can only offer with the right weather conditions.
I also remind myself that we’re a province that needs to encourage more people to get regular exercise and anything that gets people outside and moving is money well-spent because a healthier population spends less on health care.
With global warming getting worse and temperatures continuing to rise, the Oval provides an opportunity for up to 1,500 people to enjoy an outdoor skate daily from late December to early March. We’re lucky if we get seven days a winter that we can skate on lakes in most parts of Nova Scotia.
I look out my window as I finish this column and watch the rain gathering in puddles. It’s a far cry from the Decembers of that old-timer’s youth, and mine, and I wonder if the effect that humanity has had on the climate can ever be reversed.
Even the ice plant at the Oval is no match for this, but I’m grateful we have it and look forward to many outdoor skates this winter.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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