When it was recently announced that the Toronto Maple Leafs would play in next year’s NHL Winter Classic, a million Canadian hearts were stirred. Hoisting the Stanley Cup under the lights of the Air Canada Centre is the stuff dreams are made of, but the great outdoors is where the national game actually lives and breathes. Our five-dollar bill bears both a picture of an outdoor shinny game and a quote from Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater: “The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places—the school, the church and the skating rink—but our real life was on the skating rink.” It’s a sentence that has been said to sum up Canada.
During the winter in Toronto, you can find pick-up hockey virtually any time of day on one of the city’s free outdoor rinks. Shinny is a freewheeling version of the game played without a timer, referee or scoreboard. There are no fees, no registration and no need to be particularly skilled. The game is reduced to its essentials: the crunch of skates digging into the ice, the feel of the wind in your face, the weight of the puck on your stick. And then there’s the instant connection that comes when a collection of neighbours is transformed effortlessly into a team.
It doesn’t take much to get into shinny, but newcomers hoping to score a few games before the rinks close for the year can benefit from some introductory tips.
1. How to get started
Just show up at the rink, put on your skates and get on the ice. Generally, you’ll find a bunch of players already there skating around and shooting pucks against the boards. When there are enough players to form two teams (with four to six skaters a side), everyone throws their sticks down at centre ice. Someone divides the sticks randomly into two piles, determining teams. Then one team takes the puck to its own end and the game is on.
If a game’s already in progress, just ask someone which team you should join. When the ice gets too crowded, each team usually divides into two or even three lines, changing shifts with every goal.
2. How to play
This hockey isn’t exactly played according to standard rules—there are generally no goalies, no faceoffs and no one keeps score. Local rinks or players will have their variations, but some general shinny basics are widely observed.
No body contact: No one’s wearing pads here, and players have wildly different skill levels. When contact accidentally occurs, shinny etiquette requires the guilty player to stop, apologize and then allow the struck player to take possession of the puck.
No slap shots, no raising the puck above ankle level.
Offsides and icing are not exactly observed: Most players try to stay onside and avoid icing the puck, but the play doesn’t stop if the rules are transgressed.
Finesse and passing are celebrated: There are usually a few players on the ice who could dominate play, but that gets boring very quickly. Creative stickhandling and passing plays that set less skilled players up to score are the ultimate objectives of the game.
3. How to score
Because there are no goalies, players are often required to hit the post to score. A simpler variation requires scoring from inside the crease. Occasionally, nets are turned backwards and pucks must be banked in off the back boards, or a sweater is hung from the posts to serve as a target. The method of scoring is decided before play begins.
4. How to celebrate scoring
Do give your teammates a restrained fist bump.
Don’t cock your stick like a gun and point it at another player.
Where to get info
The City of Toronto offers information on its website, but a far more useful body of shinny knowledge is maintained by volunteers at cityrinks.ca. There, you’ll find information on which skill levels can be found at which rinks, when play is reserved for women or children, change-room conditions and the quality of the ice.
Where to get skates on the cheap
A number of stores specialize in used gear, including the Play It Again Sports chain, but the selection of affordable used skates at Newson’s (612 Jane St., at St. Clair) is in a league of its own. Even better: If you’re shopping for rapidly growing children, you can trade in the ones they’ve outgrown for a discount on the new pair.
51: Number of outdoor ice rinks operated and maintained by the City of Toronto.
Feb. 26: Date that 39 of the city’s outdoor rinks close for the season.
March 11: Date when the remainder of the city’s outdoor rinks close for the season.