Ex-Senator Chris Neil is back on the ice running an outdoor skate shop

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“It’s great to see the kids running around the trails.”

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Former Ottawa Senators winger Chris Neil descends from the Zamboni, another flood, and looks out over the tree-lined ice dream carved out of the wilderness outside of Stittsville.

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“We’ve been talking about this with two partners (Jarrett Gibbons and Steve Beck) for about four years,” said Neil, who traded in his Senators gear for durable outdoor gear ahead of Friday’s official opening of Icelynd Skating trails. “We started preparations at the end of September and there were no roads here. We have accomplished a lot in a short time.”

Neil bought 90 acres of land on Fernbank Road years ago while still playing with the Senators and tossed around various ideas of how it might eventually be developed.

Somehow it only makes sense that the resulting project would be about ice cream.

Family and friends contributed time, machines and electrical know-how.

The adventure, open to the public, includes a well-lit, two-kilometer skate loop through pine, cedar, and cottonwood trees, with campfires and benches set up for breaks along the way. Another three-kilometre route is scheduled to open in the next few weeks.

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The facility also includes a 160 x 65 foot outdoor ice rink, which has been rented to smaller hockey teams, figure skating teams, and for family and corporate events.

The stage includes National Hockey League-sized panels, some sponsored by local businesses, with Plexiglas and mesh behind each net to prevent stray pucks from sailing into the woods.

There are benches for the players and, of course, for a venture involving the resilient winger, who recorded 2,522 penalty minutes in his 1,026-game Senatorial career, there is a penalty bench. Hockey sticks serve as a railing when entering the ice rink.

At night, lights mounted 30 feet high in the trees illuminate the ODR and the separate ice rink oval that leads to the trails. More benches and campfires surround the surfaces, and there are three Zambonis tending to all surfaces.

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The Icelynd Skating Trails hockey rink, which even has a penalty box.
The Icelynd Skating Trails hockey rink, which even has a penalty box. Photo by Ken Warren /POST MEDIA

“I always try to do things that I like and enjoy,” Neil said. “We had a soft opening with family and friends earlier in the week. It was fun going outside and getting people off their devices. I see it in my kids how much time they spend on their (phones). It’s great to see the kids running around the trails.”

At this point, any outdoor experience is a welcome respite from the cabin fever that set in while trying to dodge COVID-19.

A skate into the wild looks as Canadian as maple syrup or plaid shirts.

With school still out Thursday, Neil and Gibbons had their own kids on the ice.

“You spent about six hours out here (Wednesday)” Neil said, laughing.

The partners have countless ideas and options for further expanding the system in the coming years. The heated sheds, intended to serve as skate changing rooms, are in place but are closed for the time being due to public health pandemic protocols.

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“With COVID-19 that’s just not possible because we have to keep social distancing, but you can go to the fires to put the skates on,” Neil said.

In accordance with guidelines and to limit the number of people at a time, skaters are asked to book appointments online at icelynd.com.

The Icelynd Skating Trails hockey rink, which even has a penalty box.
The Icelynd Skating Trails hockey rink, which even has a penalty box. Photo by Ken Warren /POST MEDIA

“This is for everyone,” Neil said. “It’s not just for hockey players. We had figure skaters and family skates at the rink. When we started, my vision was to have families from the Roger Neilson House out here, a day for the families.”

Along the way, Neil has learned a few new tricks. After some trial and error, including driving a Zamboni into the boards, he comfortably spends his days grooming the trails through the trees.

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The route through the forest (the partners researched the best route using Google Maps) is mostly flat, but there are a few slight inclines along the way.

When he’s not working at the Icelynd facility – which means “ruler of the winter storm” – Neil serves as an assistant coach for his two sons’ ice hockey teams.

He is also the Senators’ Alumni Ambassador and represents the organization at games and community events.

“I still do stuff with the senators, but it’s been a struggle and a drudgery (with COVID-19) and with all the regulations, it’s been tough.”

Some current senators have also paid a visit, including Captain Brady Tkachuk.

Believe it or not, for a family with as deep a hockey history as the Tkachuks, “it was his first time at an outdoor rink because the weather in St. Louis just can’t do it.”

As for Neil, he never seems to leave the spot now and returns for another round on the Zamboni.

[email protected]

Twitter.com/Citizenkwarren

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