For the first time since it was founded in 2002, the annual World Pond Hockey Championship in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, has been cancelled due to dangerously thin ice.
Organizers decided in a meeting last week that the upcoming pond hockey competition scheduled to begin on February 15 can’t go forward.
“We just couldn’t risk trying to put people out there,” says Danny Braun, co-founder and organizer of the event. Each year, the international pond hockey tournament welcomes 40 teams to play games on Roulston Lake. But currently, the ice is less than 11 inches thick.
“We have to have a minimum of a foot of good, solid ice before we can dare put anything out on it,” he says. “And it’s just not there.”
This is a first for the tournament. “We’ve been running it every year since 2002, and the only time we’ve lost the ability to host was in the two years of COVID-19, because of travel regulations,” he says.
Environment Canada’s senior climatologist David Phillips is not surprised. “This is a sad, sad, sad situation,” says Phillips. “It’s another example of human-induced climate change. It is the way the majority of Canadians will feel and see climate change.”
Phillips says this year has not been a good year for “growing ice” in New Brunswick, as well as other parts of Canada. “Any sport activity or recreational pursuit involved with ice forming has had its challenges this year,” he says.
Last week, tournament organizers tried to help Mother Nature in a last-ditch effort to save the four-day hockey event. On Saturday and Sunday, they flooded the ice with water for about eight hours each day.
“We were trying to make enough ice so we could host the event. But by Monday, believe it or not, we had less ice than we did before we started,” Braun says. “As much as we were putting on the top, we were losing out the bottom.”
Braun says there was about five and a half inches of “nice, clear, strong, blue ice,” and after they added more water, it was only four and half inches.
Phillips says warmer than usual temperatures throughout 2023 are to blame for the lack of ice. “In Northern New Brunswick, I could understand why this is a challenge this year,” says Phillips. “We had the fourth warmest year in 76 years in 2023. We had a very warm summer.”
“It’s not just the fact that they haven’t had cold enough temperatures to freeze the ice, it’s that maybe the ponds were, in fact, warm going into the winter,” Phillips says. “They needed more freezing degree days to make the ice more solid.”
Temperatures in December, which were about five degrees warmer than normal, didn’t help either. “December was like, on fire,” Phillips says. “It was almost five degrees in that part of New Brunswick.”
Tournament organizers noticed. “We had people golfing here on the 28th of December, which is unheard of,” says Braun. “Normally, there’d be a foot or a foot and a half of snow on the golf course, but there wasn’t even frost on the ground.”
As organizers scrambled to save the tournament, there were some mishaps. One man was walking towards shore when he actually went through the ice up to his waist. The tires of a small, garden-size tractor with a little snow blower, typically used to clear off snow, went through the ice, too. After this, the conditions were deemed unsafe.
“Climate change is a real phenomenon that we’re experiencing,” Braun says.
Experts say the ice is thinner and therefore more dangerous across Canada this year. Phillips says while there were some freezing-degree days in northern New Brunswick in December and January, it was only about 55 to 58 per cent of the typical amount. “It just wasn’t cold enough for the ice to form,” he says.
Cancelling the tournament is a blow to the local economy this time of year, Braun says, but the teams have been understanding. In this case, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“To have an unnecessary tragedy because we tried to force the event through when it’s not safe, that tarnishes the whole thing,” he says. “Obviously it’s not a situation anybody wants to be in.”
The cancellation may be a harbinger of what’s to come for the future of winter sports that are dependent on cold temperatures, like skating, ice fishing, and skiing.
“These are the things that are precious to us, that are part of our life, our tradition, and our memories,” Phillips says. “And we’re seeing them disappear.”
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