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Museum Musings: Whistler on ice

Skating and hockey have been popular winter sports in the Whistler area for more than a century
The outdoor skating rink next to Myrtle Philip School.

Skating and hockey have been popular winter sports in the Whistler area for more than a century, especially when weather conditions make for less-than-optimal skiing. The Woods and Jardine-Neiland children played hockey with shovels on Alta Lake in the 1920s and ’30s, while in the 1960s the Alta Lake Community Club spent Friday nights skating at the “Rainbow Rink” with hot dogs and hot chocolate from Rainbow Lodge. Until 1978, most of the skating rinks were built on frozen ponds and lakes by residents and community groups.

While November 1978 started off looking promising for the upcoming ski season, the snow turned to rain by Nov. 6, and the freezing level rose, melting much of the snow that had accumulated on the runs. The temperature then dropped to about -8 C overnight, leading to frozen pipes and eight centimetres of ice on some of the lakes and streams.

The weather stayed cold and clear through mid-November, which was great news for those interested in ice stock sliding or skating, but terrible for Whistler Mountain and its expected opening date of Nov. 18. In a statement from Nov. 22, 1978, a lift company spokesperson told the Whistler Question they still needed “about 50 cm of new snow to make the upper areas anywhere near skiable and probably closer to one metre to make the mountain operational.”

The season was being compared to that of 1976-77, when Whistler Mountain closed for three weeks in January due to lack of snow—but the cold temperatures made for amazing skating and a perpetual hockey game on the local lakes.

Whistler residents took advantage of the cold weather of November 1978 by skating on Alta Lake and Nita Lake, playing hockey on the Alpine Meadows pond, and ice stock sliding on the River of Golden Dreams. The municipality also began building an outdoor skating rink adjacent to Municipal Hall and next to Myrtle Philip School (MPS).

Unfortunately for the municipal crew led by Cliff Jennings, as soon as they began to flood the rink, the temperature rose and it finally began to snow. The rink was still not finished by Dec. 6, when a Question “School News” report written by MPS student Lance Bright stated, “We would like to thank the person responsible for the skating rink by the school. We hope it will be completed soon.”

While the change in the weather delayed the ice rink, it was good news for Whistler Mountain, which was finally able to open on Dec. 15. The snow continued through much of December, but by the end of the year the temperature had dropped again, and 1979 started off cold and clear.

Skating at the municipal rink became a popular activity for residents and holiday visitors. The rink’s regulations allowed hockey to be played until 1 p.m.; from then on, it was recreational skating only. Lights were added and bonfires lit to attract skaters in the evenings.

The rink was always intended to be temporary, lasting only the 1978-79 season. Though the original plans for the Whistler Resort Centre (now the Whistler Conference Centre) included an Olympic-sized ice rink, the plans for the building were changed dramatically following a recession in the early 1980s, and the rink was among the features cut. Whistler’s first indoor municipal skating rink, the ice rink at Meadow Park north of the Village, opened in 1992, with the pools and recreation facilities added in the following years. Walking through Whistler Village today, however, you are likely to see people skating in Olympic Plaza, not far from the first outdoor rink built by the municipality.