Lovin’ The Loop

A sure-fire way to beat the mid-winter blues

Susan Flanagan susan@48degrees.ca
Published on February 11, 2014

Skating on The Loop makes me feel like I’m on vacation in another city — at Rockefeller Center in New York perhaps or on the Canal in Ottawa. The Loop is the best thing to be built in St. John’s in years.

Last March I got to skate at Olympic Plaza in front of Calgary City Hall. It was uplifting to have the sun in my eyes and the wind on my cheeks and to be gliding outdoors on a smooth surface. Mid-winter blues all but evaporated.

This is just what we need for

St. John’s, I thought, thinking of the grey skies, driving wind and light depression that can accompany a Newfoundland winter day. And even though I knew the refurbishment plans for Bannerman Park included a skating oval, at that point it didn’t seem fathomable that before long we would be skating outdoors on a beautiful groomed surface here at home.

That is, until the final weeks of last year, when the Bannerman Park Foundation partnered with the City of St. John’s to open The Loop. Now a cure for the winter doldrums is a mere 15-minute walk from my front door.

To say my family has embraced The Loop is an understatement. During Christmas break we skated The Loop six times. Every time was different. Sometimes there were so many other skaters we were lucky to shuffle along like rush-hour traffic on Prince Philip Drive. Other times we were among only a dozen people there. Sometimes an inch of snow covered the ice surface and the ruts on the edges were so deep they sent Surprise Baby into orbit. We have skated behind a toddler pushing a skating aid like our own personal Zamboni. We have seen sleds on The Loop. Dogs on The Loop. Even RNC horses at The Loop. We have witnessed a game of shinny played one day on one of the handles, as I call the small side loops off the two big main loops. On New Year’s Day, it was so cold at The Loop we almost lost digits lacing up.

Ice envy

Back in 2012, my brother, who lives in Nova Scotia, sent me pictures of himself skating outdoors in the fresh air right at the corner of North Park and Cogswell streets in Halifax. The 400-metre Emera Oval sits right next to the Armoury where we celebrated his wedding decades ago. If you can’t picture how big 400 metres is, think of three NHL hockey rinks strung together. That’s 55,000 square feet of ice that can accommodate 1,500 skaters at one time.

Seven days a week the Emera Oval offers free public skating sessions, Skating for Schools, Learn to Skate programs and speed skating clinics. Generally, two hours of skating are followed by one hour of resurfacing and maintenance. And if you don’t have skates or a helmet, with a picture ID, you can borrow theirs free of charge.

Man, was I jealous when he first emailed those pictures. But now, here we are with our own refrigerated outdoor ice surface. At 270 metres, The Loop is not quite as big as the Halifax Oval, and we’re not quite at the stage where we can offer free skate rentals in Bannerman Park, but every time we go The Loop seems to get better.

Picnic tables were added, for example, to take some of the pressure off the benches where skaters lace up. And the ice surface, which before Christmas made Kent’s Pond seem like the best-groomed ice on the planet, is now as smooth as a baby’s bum.

The Loop and No. 5 have come a long way since Christmas Eve when both he and the original ice surface were a bit rough. Now it’s February and No. 5’s skating skills have improved exponentially since the first few times when he could only stay upright if he held hands with both my husband and me. (Note: at The Loop it’s a little cramped to skate three abreast holding hands with others present).

Whenever No. 5’s skate blade would get stuck in a rut, down he’d go, taking the nerves in my lower back with him.

It wasn’t a smooth start, I can assure you. No matter how many times or how many different ways I explained how to push and glide, my words and illustrated actions had no effect. Yet one day when his oldest brother came to The Loop with us, No. 1 used the exact same words as I had hundreds of times to no avail. But for his brother, No. 5 responded immediately.

“Conor taught me to skate,” he said, laughing, when he got home. “I wouldn’t listen to Mommy.”

He’s a funny boy.

Loopless and listless

Now that No. 5 has had a taste of skating outdoors, he can’t do without his fix. He went into withdrawal when The Loop closed from Jan. 12–24 due to high temperatures and a rain and wind storm that caused parts of the ice to disappear.

During those Loopless 12 days No. 5 begged me to take him skating, but there were not many options on weekdays unless he pipped off school.

We were extremely happy when The Loop reopened and we laced up within hours of hearing the news. The quality of the ice surface had improved as much as No. 5’s technique.

I hear the ice technicians got some tips from Mile One staff. I commend the city employees maintaining The Loop. It can’t be easy to all of a sudden have to deal with the intricacies of cooling systems, underground piping and track edges. But they have risen to the occasion.

Sweetening the pot

There are a few things that would make The Loop even better than it is. I can still taste the sugary warmth of the beaver tail my husband treated me to while skating on the Ottawa Canal over 20 years ago. Maybe by next year, peckish skaters at The Loop will be able to order a signature food like St. John’s Jam-Jams. Or Lucky Loop donuts. Bannerman Burgers and Rennies Mill Hot Chocolate.

This past Saturday we got to see just how handy it would be to have refreshments on site during The Loop’s official opening.

While Mayor Dennis O’Keefe and former deputy mayor Shannie Duff gave their thanks to all involved, and Alan Doyle sang “A Children’s Winter” with St. Paul’s choir, citizens of this fair city could grab a donated Tim Hortons hot chocolate as they mingled with Buddy the Puffin and former premier Danny Williams.

No. 5 wasn’t interested in hot chocolate. All he wanted to do was skate, and skate he did. All during the opening celebrations he careened about behind the choir like a Thai taxi driver zipping in and out of tuk tuks in Bangkok. It’s really hard to believe he could hardly stand up on skates just six weeks before. If The Loop hadn’t opened, not only would No. 5 not yet be skating, he would not yet be playing hockey. And he loves hockey.

And do you know what I love? I love listening to music when I skate on The Loop.

The first time I heard Christmas music emanating from the tiny speakers I got that warm, fuzzy feeling inside. It was so special that the next time I went to The Loop and there was no music I missed it.

More than half the times we’ve been, the music hasn’t been playing. It is so magical it enhances an already beautiful experience.

Parking is another thing that may need a bit of rejigging where The Loop is concerned. Up till now, on a busy Loop day both sides of Bannerman Road, Circular Road and Rennies Mill have been blocked with skaters’ vehicles. Massive snow banks impede traffic even more. We’ve been parking in The Colonial Building lot and crawling over the fence. This will only work until the renovations on that building are complete and the provincial government reclaims that space.

Date destination

But enough criticism. Let me tell you another thing I love about The Loop — the lights that illuminate the ice surface, both the boxy shin-high lights and the old-fashioned lamp posts make skating after sundown really special.

“The Loop is a great place for a first date,” says No. 2 who brought his girlfriend there as soon as it opened. “It’s free. It’s right in the centre of the city and it’s open until 11 at night.”

“It’s another outdoor thing to do in the winter,” adds No. 1 who has also gone skating there with his girlfriend.

No. 5 does the best job of summing up The Loop: “It’s fun,” says the six-year-old skating maniac. “Can we go every day?”

The Loop is open 11 a.m.–11 p.m. seven days a week when weather permits.

The bathrooms are open and city employees are onsite daily from 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Between 8 and 11 a.m., maintenance is conducted with the mini Olympia ice resurfacing unit.

For further information, call Access St. John’s — call 311 or 709-754-2489.

Susan Flanagan is a journalist and mother of five who no longer has to leave the province to skate on an outdoor groomed rink. She can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca

Cross-country skiing feedback

John Doyle writes: “I totally understand about the Trailer Park, but folks need to remember that the upper trails on Three Pond Barrens are a long-established year-round area for hikers and dog walkers. Peaceful co-existence will be required.”

(Note from Susan: The restrictions listed on the sign in last week’s column apply only to the trailer park in Pippy Park, not the upper trails.)

Sledge hockey news

The NL Sled Dogs are gold medal winners of an invitational sledge hockey tournament in London, Ont., against 12 other Canadian teams and three teams from the U.S. The Sled Dogs went undefeated in six games, beating the Buffalo Sabres in the gold medal game 5-0. Goalie Corey Clarke had four shut-outs. Liam Hickey was top scorer with at least two hat tricks and Troy Simpson was second top scorer.

Missing tool

If anyone lost a tool on the Colonial Building parking lot, please email Susan at the address above.