Creating skating rinks on Lake St. Louis is a winter custom that’s as old as the West Island itself, and beloved by the community.
Every winter for the past six years, Gord Raza has created a skating rink on Lake St. Louis for his community. It started because he wanted an outlet for exercise, and Pointe Claire’s Valois Bay shoreline seemed as good a place as any.
“I’m not a gym guy,” Mr. Raza says. “So one reason for building the rink was for fitness. I enjoy cycling and paddle-boarding, which are amazing workouts, but I needed something to do in the winter. The rink allows me to skate and play hockey.”
In the spirit of “If you build it, they will come,” the rink attracts other Pointe Claire skating aficionados, and there are regular shinny hockey games. The location of the rink is always the same: at the foot of Lakeside Avenue in what Mr. Raza describes as “the little cove.”
“I spend 10 times more time flooding and maintaining the rink than I do using it,” he says. “But clearing the snow on the rink is exercise, too. In fact, as soon as we have a snowfall, I have to shovel it because if the snow gets packed down by people walking on the lake, it becomes difficult to clear.” Flooding the rink has been hard work, involving hacking a hole in the ice, lowering a bucket into the lake and transporting many buckets full of water to spread on the rink’s surface. This year, he says, he’s been offered an electric pump by his son, who is a plumber, and he’ll attach a garden hose to it. The hockey nets were salvaged from garbage.
The rink is a rallying point for the community. “Everyone is so nice,” Mr. Raza says. “We had a 10-person shinny game the other day, and the 20-year-olds brought music that they played on a little speaker. I’m 61 and it makes me feel young again.”
Several blocks away, where Hillside Avenue and Lakeshore Road meet, another rink created by a Lakeside resident is well used by locals in that neighbourhood. “They’ve challenged us to a game,” Mr. Raza says.
And two municipalities to the west, in Baie d’Urfé, yet another rink is being meticulously maintained by a group of Old Timers hockey players. They moved their game outdoors in 2021 when the pandemic kept them from playing in an arena. “We are six teams,” says the man who created the rink. “My son bought a snow blower and we’ve used a generator to run a sump pump that pulls water out of the lake.” The group has even used floodlights to enable evening use.
There is a generosity of spirit that governs the creation and maintenance of homemade rinks on the lake. Everyone, it seems, is welcome to use the facilities.
Such was the case with the rinks that Peter Biega made for his four sons when they were children. The family’s house is on the Pointe Claire shoreline, so when the children were young, the backyard was fenced to protect them. “I built the first rink in 1994 in the backyard. It was 20 by 20 feet, and each year, it got bigger and bigger,” Mr. Biega recalls. “When the boys were old enough that we could move the rink onto the lake, it measured 60 by 60 feet.”
Creating a homemade rink though is a process of trial and error. “It’s a science,” Mr. Biega says. “When we built the rink in the backyard, we learned that you have to ensure the lawn is level, and you need to know when and how to water it. We got a lawn roller like the ones landscapers use. Sometimes, I’d put up floodlights because the boys liked to play hockey in the evenings. Neighbours helped with the shoveling.”
The best rinks, he recalls, were the ones he built on the lake surface, about 100 feet from the shoreline. “We’d have rain followed by a freeze and get the most beautiful ice you could have,” he says. “We did lose a net once during a melt. It floated down the lake and someone saw it in Dorval. Sometimes, the boards would end up in a foot of ice.”
The four Biega boys—Alex, Michael, Danny and Marc—loved the rinks and spent many a joyful hour skating and practicing their hockey skills. “There weren’t too many video games in our house,” their dad recalls. “The boys thrived on being outside, forming a team for shinny hockey. On weekends, my barbecue was going with hotdogs. They’d be frozen but we’d have to drag them in for dinner. They were some of the best years I’ve spent.”
And when the boys couldn’t play on the lake, they’d walk to the outdoor rink at nearby Ovide Park. “I give credit to the city of Pointe Claire, which provides its residents with excellent facilities. The boys always had several options of where to play,” Mr. Biega says.
The Biega boys became so good at the game that they all played double-letter hockey, and their proficiency won all four of them scholarships to Salisbury School, an all-boys prep school in Connecticut, from which three proceeded to study at Harvard University and one attended Merrimack College near Boston. The three who attended Harvard played on the university’s hockey team. “One year, they were all on the team together,” Mr. Biega says.
Alex and Danny have enjoyed pro careers in the National Hockey League. Alex is playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.
The lake rink on which the Biega children perfected their game was more than just a place to practice stick-handling and goal-scoring. “Neighbours helped maintain it and everyone was welcome to use it,” Mr. Biega says.
Gord Raza knows all about that. The community has been coalescing around his rink, too, for the past six years. “I love anyone to go there and use the ice,” he says. “I do this so I have my own rink but it’s for everyone.”