A person wearing blue jeans hits a hockey puck with a hockey stick while skating on a backyard ice rink.
Backyard ice rinks have been celebrated as a “Canadian way” to enjoy winter while many community rinks were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic (photo by Pete Thompson licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

“What do you do in the middle of a pandemic, when winter weather has arrived and almost every form of recreation is banned? Build an outdoor ice rink.” This was the question CBC Manitoba asked its readers—and answered for them—in December 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave. A month later, firefighters in rural Ontario were filling backyard rinks for residents, and CTV highlighted pandemic induced backyard rinks from Ottawa to the Maritime provinces.

Outdoor ice rinks play a significant social and cultural role in the construction of a collective Canadian identity; from the romantic images of children scrimmaging on frozen ponds in commercials for Tim Hortons coffee shops, to the National Hockey League’s Winter Classic games, outdoor hockey is painted with nostalgia and innocence, as the game in its purest form. So, when backyard rinks had a renaissance during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not surprising the Canadian media viewed such a development as worthy of celebration. Yet, as we face another winter marked by the pandemic, it is important to consider that, despite these media images, many Canadians have not been able to stick-handle “around the pandemic on [their] backyard rink.”

Hockey scholar Robert Rutherdale has argued that underneath this celebratory narrative is the reality that equal access to backyard rink spaces is a myth within the myth of Canada’s game. While backyard rinks share some aesthetic similarities with community rinks, there is one fundamental difference: backyard rinks are, by definition, private property. Therefore, access to these rinks is limited, both in the sense of who can build them and who is allowed to play on them.

Critical Indigenous scholars have suggested that private property is both material and ideological, where the very notion of private property naturalizes settler belonging and occupation of Indigenous lands. In the context of the pandemic, when access to public, community rinks faced varying restrictions, hockey became more or less limited to private backyards, creating the conditions where only certain groups were privileged enough to participate in the national winter pastime. Instead of breaking down barriers to increase hockey’s accessibility, backyard rinks delineate space in a way that reproduces boundaries of belonging and exclusion established by capitalism and colonialism, exposing sport’s role in the inherently uneven process of solidifying claims to space.

The value of a backyard rink

Consider the financial side of building a backyard rink. Not only does a family likely need to own their home, but they also require a reasonable backyard to install even a small rink. According to research at Wilfred Laurier, and looking at companies Rink Master and EZ Ice, the cost of materials for a backyard rink begin at around $500 (do-it-yourself) and can range upward of $2,500, not counting landscaping or water costs. Then there comes the time it takes to install, maintain, disassemble, and store the rink each year.

These factors should lead us to pause and consider some questions that are often overlooked in media narratives about backyard rinks: which families are included and, perhaps more importantly, who is excluded? If we examine the numbers, we see that Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour (BIPOC) disproportionately bore the economic hardship of the pandemic, with Indigenous people facing the greatest unemployment rate—a gap projected to persist following the pandemic given that non-Indigenous people’s unemployment rate had dropped to 8% at the end of 2020, while Indigenous men’s and women’s unemployment remained at 11% and 12%, respectively.

Along with being overrepresented in the low-income bracket, BIPOC individuals who live in urban centres are more likely to rent, not own, in dense, lower-income neighborhoods—a situation exacerbated by the cost of housing that climbed steadily throughout the pandemic. Given these factors, pandemic rinks tended to remain in the backyards of upper-middle class, predominantly white families. Therefore, those who were not privileged enough to build one were left with the choice of facing public contempt for using community rinks or forgoing recreation entirely.

A fun family activity only some can enjoy

Now, once a backyard rink is built, who gets to skate on it? The most obvious answer is the family who built it, representing a narrow demographic. But who is invited or allowed into the space? While public, community rinks and ponds are, at least in theory, open to anyone who can lace up a pair of skates, backyard rinks are largely under constant surveillance by property owners. Because property owners have the perceived right to determine who is granted access to their private space, backyard rinks are accessed by invitation only.

This ability to exclude means that, while there is an increasing number of BIPOC players taking part in the game, backyard rinks remain spaces where primarily white players (and their families) can choose not to integrate, maintaining a safe space for whiteness. As scholar Courtney Szto discusses, a shift toward private over public spaces impacts the game at local, national, and at times global levels, as it functions as another means of filtering out BIPOC individuals before they reach the level of the game that shapes public memory and the supposedly collective Canadian identity.

Discussing the experience of Indigenous players described in Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese’s award-winning book Indian Horse, scholars Sam McKegney and Trevor Phillips note that language of “rights” delineates insider and outsider status within dominant society. Based on racialized distinctions, this details who belongs—namely, “white people”—and whose access to space is impermanent and conditional. Therefore, backyard rinks, like any (dis)possessed and commodified space, can reproduce an inherently white, masculine, and heteronormative entitlement to space.

Concluding thoughts

Throughout the pandemic, Canadian leaders tried to sell the line “we are all in this together” –a narrative that may comfort some people. Yet the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, and while backyard rinks may not be the most serious outcome of this, they are a readily identifiable example of the colonial and capitalist driven social divisions likely to persist. Ultimately, backyard rinks demythologize the mythical notion of community and collective identity supposedly underpinning hockey in Canada. At a time when many people would benefit from stronger community spaces, we ended up with bounded, individualized spaces instead. Moving forward, it is time we stop painting backyard rinks as romantic, innocent spaces where Canadians come together to play Canada’s game, but recognize them as an often-overlooked player in the game of capitalism and colonialism.

I (Kennedy Kneller) am a third-generation settler of Western European descent. I am a master’s candidate in the School of Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia working with Dr Moss Norman. My MA thesis explores experiences of Indigenous girls and women in ice hockey in a Northern BC community, specifically focusing on how these experiences are negotiated and informed by local knowledges and cultural values.