• AFP-JIJI

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With health authorities restricting public gatherings and other social activities, many Canadians are embracing an old winter tradition — the backyard ice rink.

“We are in our family bubble, we respect the public health rules and we have fun at the same time,” Felix Rheaume said while standing on a large rink nearly the size of his yard with skates on his feet and a hockey stick in hand.

The rinks are allowing Canadians to skate and play ice hockey — the country’s national pastime — while avoiding personal contact beyond their immediate family and friends during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearby, Rheaume’s youngest daughter, wearing a bright pink helmet and padded ski pants, kicks forward and immediately falls before breaking out in laughter.

The number of family outdoor rinks has doubled to more than 1,550 in Quebec province alone compared to past winters, according to data collected by Stephane Kirouac, an electronics teacher.

The 56-year-old has been running a French-language website called “Building an outdoor rink is easy,” since 2003.

“During the pandemic, the number of rinks has exploded,” he told AFP, adding that “a third of these people have zero experience building a skating rink.”

It’s not just the number of rinks that is growing. The number of rink enthusiasts is also swelling. A Facebook group where photos and advice are shared has seen membership increase from 800 people in September to more than 7,000.

“This is the first year we’ve done this,” said Rheaume, 35, explaining that “it’s pretty simple, it’s done in half a day.”

He estimated the cost of his rink at around $250 Canadian dollars ($200) for water and materials.

Rinks are constructed directly on grass or atop a canvas or plastic sheet. Edges are formed from boards, and water is added a bit at a time so that it can freeze over several days.

With three children at home, Rheaume was attracted by the simplicity of this outdoor activity, with the rink located mere feet from his house where he has been teleworking for months.

“It allowed us to do stuff with the girls, to go out, get some fresh air and move around yet still be in compliance with the (latest) lockdown,” he explained.

His girls, ages three, 11 and 12, only occasionally skated prior to the pandemic, but now go out on the ice in the backyard twice a week.

“Due to COVID-19, we don’t want to go to a place where it’s too crowded, as it can sometimes be at the frozen pond in the park or at a public ice rink,” he said.

“Now is really the best time to do it,” said Simon Bedard, a 28-year-old hockey fan who built his first backyard ice rink in December with the help of his neighbors.

The rink has become a meeting place, especially on weekends, which allows people to keep in touch while respecting social distancing.

“In normal times, I don’t think we would have thought about that,” Bedard said. It was a “spontaneous idea” born out of isolation during the pandemic.

“Definitely, I intend to repeat the experience next year,” said Rheaume, adding that he was surprised his family’s enthusiasm for the rink didn’t quickly melt after a few laps.

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