MEREDITH, N.H. — Scott Crowder stared out at the mostly frozen surface of Lake Winnipesaukee, where amid piles of snow and ominous slushy puddles a pond hockey tournament was definitively not under way.
“It’s a shitshow,” he said. Snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles careened through the slush on a Saturday afternoon in early February as a few stubborn holdouts played hockey on the skateable patches. A counter just off the lake’s surface sold Pond Hockey Classic hoodies, T-shirts and hats, and a band churned out ‘70s rock covers.
“We have not had to cancel our New Hampshire event before,” Crowder said of the tournament that he founded and has run annually since 2010. “Unlucky thirteen.”
Days before, a storm had plowed across New England — bringing large amounts of rain before a belated switch to snow. The crew setting up for the hockey tournament worked to clear the slushy mess accumulating on New Hampshire’s largest lake, but the weight of the piles they created began to shift and dent the 16-inch-thick layer of ice. Standing water accumulated. Holes opened up. The smooth surface needed to play tournament hockey disappeared.
Eventually, Crowder made the tough call to cancel, disappointing 2,200 players, thousands of fans — and himself.
Outdoor hockey, long a winter staple in the northern United States and Canada, is under threat as the world warms. Climate change isn’t just making the sort of storm that canceled the Lake Winnipesaukee tournament more likely — it’s also shrinking outdoor skating seasons, taking some of the blue-collar shine off the sport. Hockey began as an outdoor pastime centuries ago. The NHL, founded in 1917, helped transform it into a professional sport that generates billions of dollars a year. But even today, some of its strongest players honed their skills on lakes and ponds and in backyards and parks, rather than relying solely on expensive indoor rinks.
“A lot of our participants are from New England, greater Boston, Connecticut,” Crowder said. “They’re like, ‘We used to skate on ponds back home, and now those ones don’t even freeze.’”
He looked around at the lake as his crew continued to clean up after the tournament that wasn’t — the plastic boards that marked each of 26 rinks’ boundaries, the small red metal goals. “It’s kind of going in the wrong direction for people who like to enjoy outdoor hockey.”
Strong evidence of weak ice
A day later and a couple hours south, Sean Gill skated around the homemade rink in his spacious, tree-ringed backyard in Stow, Mass. The rink measures about 50 feet by 40 feet, about one-tenth the area of a professional hockey rink. Gill first constructed it in 2008 as a way to get outside more during the winter. The rink needs constant attention to maintain a surface suitable for hockey.
He grew up in a town not far away, playing on a frozen pond with a dozen other kids from the neighborhood. “We weren’t very good, but we were not afraid to goon it up a little bit,” he said from under a Boston Bruins hat.
A few years ago, Gill began participating in a citizen science program called RinkWatch. Run by researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, RinkWatch has collected data on outdoor rinks and frozen ponds across North America since 2013 to understand what climate change is doing to outdoor skating. Users submitted reports on about 1,500 ponds and rinks in the first two years of the project. The data are starkly illuminating: Skating seasons are getting shorter everywhere. Rinks and ponds are freezing later, thawing earlier, and growing less stable.
The RinkWatch scientists have published several studies based on that data along with climate-model projections. One found that the length of outdoor skating seasons in Toronto and Montreal will decline by 34 percent by 2090. Another showed a declining number of good outdoor skating days across each of the NHL’s Original Six cities (Toronto, Montreal, Boston, New York, Chicago, and Detroit) since 1942, when that era of the league began.
“Places where you get skating in sort of mid- to late-December, suddenly that becomes more like early January,” said Robert McLeman, one of the RinkWatch researchers. “You’ll lose time at the other end of the season too.” The likelihood of rinks becoming unskateable for days in midwinter will go up as well, as warm spells in January and February temporarily melt rinks and ponds.
Other studies have borne this out. Modeling by researchers at Concordia University in Montreal suggests that with an aggressive global reduction in emissions, the skating season in Montreal would average 41 days in length by century’s end, compared with 45 days in 2020. But if emissions continue largely unchecked, that season would last only 11 days.
Some real-life data reinforce that message. The iconic Rideau Canal in Ottawa turns into a massive skating rink each winter. In the 1970s, skating season there routinely began in December. Now it almost never does. In 2021, the canal was skateable for less than a month, from Jan. 28 to Feb. 25.
“Winters are still going to be around, but they’re not going to be quite as cold,” McLeman said. “We’ll get the worst part of winter — the freezing rain, the slush, the bad driving conditions, the need to crank the heat at night and so on. But we won’t get the fun bit of winter, you know, the skating on a pond or out in the backyard. Life will go on. But culturally it won’t be quite as rich.”
A democratizing force
The greatest hockey player ever grew up skating on a rink later dubbed “Wally’s Coliseum.” Walter Gretzky built and lovingly maintained the backyard rink that his son and other kids in their Brantford, Ontario, neighborhood would spend all winter on. “I really, truly could just skate out there by myself for hours on hours,” Wayne Gretzky said in 2016. “As kids we all dreamed of one day playing in Maple Leaf Gardens [the former home of the Toronto Maple Leafs]. It was like our sort of church. It was our everything.”
Many other NHL players have spoken lovingly of their childhoods on backyard and neighborhood park rinks and ponds. The diminishing outdoor skating season could make it harder for some of today’s young players to hone the skills necessary to star in hockey’s iconic professional arenas.
“I always said, kids from Edmonton, or anywhere [up] north, have such a crazy advantage,” said Andrew Ference, who grow up skating in his backyard in Alberta and played in the NHL with Boston, Pittsburgh, Calgary, and his hometown Oilers across 16 seasons. “We don’t have the Zamboni driver kicking us off after an hour of practice. We just stay out there for forever.”
The NHL is well aware of the threat a warming planet poses to the most basic version of its sport, and has launched several initiatives relating to climate change. It also has partnered with RinkWatch and brought more attention to outdoor hockey by holding several outdoor games including the annual Winter Classic, played on New Year’s Day. The league’s newest franchise, the Seattle Kraken, plays in Climate Pledge Arena — a name chosen by Jeff Bezos after Amazon bought the naming rights.
Ference, who retired from the NHL in 2016 and is now the league’s director of social impact, growth and legislative affairs, agreed that the easy access to outdoor skating time he enjoyed is disappearing. “The science is pretty obvious and solid,” he said. “It’s not just that I think people have less [skating] time — it just is. It’s a fact.” Speaking by phone from Edmonton, he said that while the city’s outdoor skating season is longer than those in more southerly locales, even there the climate now routinely produces weird winter weather.
“I think we’ve [now] had two weeks above freezing basically,” he said — certainly not the sort of January and February he remembers from childhood. “Our winters are getting really screwy.”
That screwiness will change who can log the most practice.
“I think it’s just access,” Crowder said, standing out on the lake in New Hampshire as snowmobilers and dirt bike riders tempted fate among the pools of water on the ice. “I mean, you think of having to bring your kid to a hockey rink and the cost associated with that.” Various surveys have found hockey to be among the more expensive youth sports, with families sometimes spending several thousands of dollars per year on the equipment, tournaments and team registrations. Standard organized hockey practices are of course time-limited as well, with maybe a few hours a week of skating time. “For a kid to go out on a park or a frozen pond and just play, right? I mean, just enjoy themselves, hone their skills. That doesn’t happen just because of the conditions,” he said.
McLeman agreed. “Imagine the NBA if the only way you could learn to play basketball was to join a league and to play in a gym in an organized fashion,” he said. “Somehow there was some way to take away all the basketball courts out in the neighborhoods and parks, backyards and so on? It would really cut down on participation.”
About 7,000 miles away from New Hampshire, in Beijing, the Olympic hockey tournament is winding down. Canada triumphed over the U.S. to take gold in women’s hockey Wednesday night, and the men’s final is scheduled for Sunday, the last day of the games. Beijing was never considered much of a winter wonderland (it is the only winter host city to also host a Summer Games), but even miles away in the mountains the ski slopes are covered only with artificial snow. And, in fact, the data on shrinking skate times even extends to the doorstep of the Olympics: A study of the rink in Bei Hai Park in Beijing found delayed starts and reduced duration of skating seasons since 1989, and the area of skateable ice has shrunk by two-thirds.
Hockey isn’t the only winter sport suffering as the planet warms. It is increasingly clear that the entire concept of the Winter Olympics isn’t compatible with a warming world. Last month, researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario suggested that without major, rapid cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions, only one potential host city would offer safe and fair conditions, as evaluated by athletes themselves along with coaches, by 2100. Unchecked warming means every level of winter sports, from casual to elite, are under severe threat.
Kathryn Lamontagne, a social sciences lecturer at Boston University, built her small backyard rink in Westport, Massachusetts, so her 5-year-old son could enjoy some skating time. “I grew up right on a pond,” she said. “I live now right next to the same pond. It’s about 450 feet away from our house and I can see it, but we don’t skate on it.” Her mother used to enjoy all sorts of ice-centric winter activities on the pond in the 1950s and 1960s. But Lamontagne hasn’t skated on it since the mid-1990s.
Especially in the pandemic era, Lamontagne has valued having the backyard rink as a safe place for her child to play. “I think now more than ever, knowing that we had this outdoor space was important, knowing that he could still stay on the ice because we had this in our backyard,” she said. “The thought of not being able to use it, that there weren’t going to be enough cold days, was actually giving me anxiety.”
There is ample reason to be nervous. Each year people who live near Lake Winnipesaukee celebrate what is known as the “ice-out” date, when the frozen-over lake has thawed enough to mark the unofficial start of spring. Determining the precise moment — and precision is important, because of a contest where people predict a specific time, down to the minute, for ice-out — is not an exact science, though. It relies on a single observer flying repeatedly over the lake in a small plane, and it is defined as the moment when a specific boat — the MS Mount Washington cruise ship — could successfully navigate to five specific ports of call. (Not that it does navigate to those ports, just that it could.)
Unscientific though the method may be, the ice-out dates offer a glimpse at the shrinking skating season. In the first 123 years of ice-outs, including the pre-aviation era when assessments were done from shore, the big moment happened in March only twice, with the bulk being in April. But since 2010, March ice-outs have happened three times — with the earliest ever recorded in 2016, on March 18. And only one of the 13 May ice-outs has come since 1973.
“Worst-case scenario, on the one side of the spectrum, New Hampshire could have like a coastal Atlantic climate,” Crowder said. “If we’re D.C. or Maryland? I mean, we’re not having pond hockey tournaments.”