fb-pixel Skip to main content
matt porter

The chilling reality: Outdoor hockey is an endangered species

Crews work to set up a hockey rink and staging for the NHL Winter Classic game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The Bruins and Blackhawks, who meet here Tuesday, could conceivably play on South Beach.

Ice-making technology lets balmy locales host outdoor hockey. In the last four years, the NHL has played games, ones that count in the standings, in mid-60s weather in Los Angeles and Denver. In September 1991, the NHL slapped down a rink in a parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and despite 80-degree temps, the ice wasn’t all that sloppy. League reps say they have yet to find a place they cannot make a game-ready frozen sheet.

The Winter Classic, as a yearly event, is not at immediate risk.


Outdoor hockey, as a beloved pastime, is an endangered species.

The far-reaching effects of climate change will cripple the version of the sport celebrated this week at Notre Dame Stadium, scientific research tells us. This may not be stunning to some readers, but less than a century from now, people in Black and Gold country may not be able to gather on naturally frozen neighborhood ponds or lovingly crafted homemade rinks and use sticks and skates and pucks as the tools to make memories.

In Canada, warming has led to less free ice for kids to chase their dreams, as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr once did. For many in Southern New England, New York, and New Jersey, outdoor hockey is already a throwback endeavor.

“Where I am, we’ll still be skating 50, 75 years from now,” Toronto-area environmental scientist Robert McLeman told a Boston-based reporter recently, on a late-December day when the temperature hit 65 degrees in the Hub. Toronto’s climate, McLeman said, “will be like yours. Our winters will become shorter and milder. Where you are, you’ll be pretty lucky if you’re skating.”

In its RinkWatch project, McLeman’s team at Wilfrid Laurier University has, since 2013, collected citizen reports from more than 1,400 backyard rinks and ponds across North America.


Its research has discovered ideal conditions for ice-making, while using historical data and future projections to show the average skating season for various locations. With the continental United States heating up — 2.8 degrees more by 2050, according to a dire Nov. 23 federal report — outdoor hockey enthusiasts in Boston find themselves on thin ice.

McLeman’s team has found the number of quality skating days (when it was mid-20s or colder) in Boston is half of what it was in the 1950s. A typical year now has 36 days colder than 23 degrees, which offers a 50 percent chance of good skating. A 1-degree rise in the average temperature — which could come in the next 10-15 years — could halve that number. The first good cold snap now typically arrives in January. Fifty years ago, it would have come in December. A later start and earlier end to the season, plus wild swings in weather consistency, and “the point comes where you ask yourself,” McLeman said, “is it even worth it to build an outdoor rink?”

The Williams family’s melting backyard rink in Waterloo, Ontario, in February of 2018.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The New York Times/file

In the last days of 2018 in Boston, temperatures in the 50s reset all progress. Days after his Winchester ice patch was the subject of a Globe feature story, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy gloomily joked to reporters that they were welcome to come over for a swim.


Big thaw ahead

The thawing of backyard rinks is one lens for viewing climate change, which authoritative research has deemed our planet’s most pressing problem.

In November, 13 US federal agencies detailed in a report how global warming is already affecting the environment, agriculture, energy, land and water resources, transportation, and human health and welfare.

The report warned of losses to American infrastructure and property and impeding the rate of economic growth. Also in November, the World Meteorological Organization said 20 of the warmest years on record have come in the past 22 years, with the four warmest in the last four years. It warned of compounding damage — to plants, animals, and humans — that already is being caused by hotter weather, rising tides, and more intense storms.

“We are the first generation to fully understand climate change,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in its report, “and the last generation to be able to do something about it.”

The NHL is acting, and not just in the interest of saving its beloved frozen ponds.

The league announced its NHL Green program in 2010, at the Fenway Winter Classic. It released sustainability reports in 2014 and 2018. Declaring a “vested interest” in stopping climate change, the league attended the Paris climate summit three years ago. Its SENSE summit in 2016 devoted a large chunk of time toward eco-friendly talk.

Indoor hockey is played in a “giant refrigerator,” in the words of Omar Mitchell, the league’s vice president for sustainable infrastructure and growth initiatives, and the sport relies on clean water for its playing surface.


NHL arenas, as part of the program, have committed to donating unused prepared food to needy organizations (or, like TD Garden, cooking made-to-order to reduce waste), restoring water, installing low-wattage LED lights, and offering locally sourced concessions. TD Garden gets some of its energy from a solar farm in Holliston. At the end of this month, the NHL will hold its All-Star Game in a building (San Jose’s SAP Center) powered by fuel cell technology. The league hopes fans will notice its efforts.

“We can only do so much within our operations to reduce, retract, and offset,” Mitchell said. “If we can influence the millions of fans we have, that’s where we’re going to have the biggest impact.”

Another prong in the program, Mitchell said, is upgrading the 4,000-5,000 community rinks across North America; more than 70 percent the NHL found are 20-plus years old. The NHL’s theory: Replacing outdated cooling systems, for example, will lead to a more green operation, which will lead to lower-cost ice time, which will lower the barrier to entry.

“Ice time is expensive, especially in Canada,” said Bruins forward Danton Heinen, who had precious few outdoor skating days in mild Langley, British Columbia. “That was another reason you’d be out there. You want to get as much ice as you can, because you just love it. There’s a lot of people that play the game back home, so ice isn’t always at your fingertips.


“That’s where most guys learned to play, on the outdoor rink. It’s the purest form of the game, right? It would be terrible if there were no more outdoor rinks for kids to fall in love with the game. You hope that doesn’t happen.”

In January of 2012, Jon Frankel of Brookline (kneeling third from the left) checked out the condition of his backyard rink as daughters Mia and Wendy and son Adam slip and slide on the thin ice.barry chin/globe staff/ file

Obviously, other cold-weather sports share the NHL’s concern. Before the 2014 Winter Games, 75 Olympic ski and snowboard medalists wrote to then-President Barack Obama to call for more action. They had good reason. Around that time, researchers at Canada’s University of Waterloo and Austria’s Management Center Innsbruck predicted only six of the previous 19 Winter Olympics host cities will be cold enough to reliably host the Games by century’s end.

Ference a pioneer

The league’s 31 teams play a combined 1,271 road games, arriving at almost all of them via charter planes. The impact of that always bothered Andrew Ference.

Before the now-retired defenseman arrived in Boston via trade and got his new Bruins teammates to start riding bikes to work, he spurred approximately 500 of the 700 NHLPA members to purchase carbon offsets. Players invested “a couple hundred bucks” each, Ference said, to subsidize clean energy projects to counteract the environmental impact of seven months of air travel.

“It was a pretty unique thing to happen in the world of sports,” said Ference, a Bruin from 2007-13 who officially retired in 2017. He is now a director of social impact, growth, and fan development for the league, and works with Mitchell on green initiatives.

He believes NHL players are more concerned about environmental issues than they let on.

“First and foremost, hockey players are people,” he said. “People around the world are concerned about our planet.”

In the Bruins’ dressing room over the past couple weeks, some players didn’t wish to discuss it. Several offered anecdotal evidence of warming. Winter is still a blast in Tuukka Rask’s hometown (Savonlinna, Finland), some 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle, but “it hasn’t been the same in many, many years,” he said.

Forward Joakim Nordstrom, from Stockholm, said he’s “absolutely” concerned about global warming. “I’ve seen some documentaries,” he said. “I’m trying to do whatever I can. We’re recycling everything. Simple things like that.”

Patrice Bergeron, admittedly wary of making a political stance, said he hopes we can “take care of what we have, for the future, not just for ourselves. We have to open our eyes, because the science is there.”

Like Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, who has used his Instagram account to “preserve what we have left,” Zdeno Chara feels strongly about the environment. He has hiked Mount Kilimanjaro. He is an avid cyclist. Part of the reason he converted to a plant-based diet, aside from performance reasons, is because livestock products are so resource-heavy to produce.

The Bruins captain aims to help the planet by “reducing some of the comfort we’ve created for ourselves,” he said. “I think it’s up to everyone else to really look inside [their] own soul, and kind of realize that, yeah, I can just easily say, ‘Who cares? I’m fine, because it’s not going to affect my life,’ or say, ‘I might just sacrifice some of the comforts and make it better for my children.’ If you don’t, it’s going to be up to your children, but it’s going to be a heavier and harder task to make that change.”

The warming of our planet has wide-ranging and far more serious effects than the spoiling of a recreational activity. Hockey will go on, both indoors and on the street. But as the trend goes, something of significance will be lost.

“If the backyard skating rink is an endangered species, then we need to treat it like one,” McLeman said. “Do our best to conserve it now, raise awareness of its imminent demise, come up with strategies to prevent it, if possible, and certainly cherish it while we’ve still got it.”

One day, this scene could be only a memory for Canadians and New Englanders: People playing hockey in Ottawa's Central Park, on Christmas Day, 2018. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP

Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports.