HAY RIVER, Northwest Territories — It is a frigid Saturday afternoon in mid-March, cold enough that the breath coming from the small faces pressed up against the panoramic window in Hay River’s one-room airport immediately covers the glass in an icy fog. A few dozen youth hockey players are here, dressed in blue-and-red jerseys, eagerly awaiting a group of very special guests.

The older hockey fans in town already have been buzzing with excitement at the nearby Fisherman’s Wharf, where they are playing their annual Polar Pond Hockey tournament. A row of 10 small rinks has been cleared on the frozen, snow-covered river that gives the town its name, and a forest of hockey sticks is planted in a snow pile near its banks.

Skaters of all sizes and skills fill the ice. On one sheet they snap crisp passes to one another as they work their way down the ice in just a few powerful strides. On the next, teammates chuckle and politely avert their eyes as one poor soul hunches over the thigh-high mound of snow serving as the boards and struggles to hang on to the morning’s breakfast, fighting the after-effects of last night’s welcome party. And next to them, a team waddles toward its goal dressed in inflatable squirrel costumes — an impulse purchase designed to be a reminder that the team’s mission here is to have fun. The regional tournament, a calendar staple since 2008, provides a chance for anyone from the small towns sprinkled throughout Canada’s Northwest Territories to shake free from their long, dark winter.

“This event means everything to our community. It’s great to be able to play on the pond in brighter days and enjoy this nice, beautiful weather we have today,” says 31-year-old tournament organizer Terry Rowe, as the wind carrying minus-25 degree Celsius temperatures whips his face.

From 10,000 feet above the 60th parallel, the ice seems to touch everything. A ribbon of road curls around the western half of the frozen Great Slave Lake, a streak of a railway darts south toward Alberta and a tiny outcropping of buildings comprising the 3,000-person town of Hay River sits where those two paths cross. And beyond that, the ice appears to be unending and unyielding.

First, it shaped the land, scraping clean half of Canada as its glaciers slid southward a couple million years ago. And then it shaped the lives of anyone willing to brave it. From the Dene people who have been here for thousands of years to the miners who arrived in the past two centuries, the ice impacts the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the ways they travel, the jobs they hold and the games they play — all the things that add up to a peoples’ view of what makes them who they are.

For many of the people in Hay River and throughout Canada’s northern territories, the ice no longer seems to be as reliable as it once was. And as a result, neither do the ways of life and the cultural institutions such as pond hockey that it has helped to shape. This year’s Polar Pond Hockey tournament was the first to be played in full force in the past four years. Before COVID waylaid plans in 2020 and 2021, it was the weather. As volunteers started to prep the rinks for the 2019 tournament, temperatures crept above freezing and the river ice turned soupy. In the closing days of winter in one of North America’s northernmost towns, it was too warm to play hockey.

There is no threat of warmth in the forecast this mid-March weekend. Back at the airport, the bright red Air Tindi plane comes into view through the panoramic window and parents begin to bundle themselves and their children to greet visitors on the tarmac. They march outside waving pompoms, homemade noisemakers and welcome signs when the plane touches down. They don’t get many visitors in Hay River, much less Canadian hockey royalty.

The plane is carrying four Olympic medals, five Stanley Cup rings and the players who earned them: 2010 Olympic MVP Meghan Agosta and a trio of former Edmonton Oilers — Craig MacTavish, Andrew Ference and Curtis Glencross. The incoming hockey stars pose for pictures and sign autographs until the cold makes their hands too stiff to comfortably hold a pen. They are here for a weekend of enjoying the national pastime in the way that most Canadians learn to love the game: outdoors, on frozen ponds, rivers, lakes and intentionally flooded backyards.

“My parents put an outdoor rink in the backyard, and we still talk about those memories to this day,” Agosta said. “We’d use our basement as the dressing room. We’d put on the tunes and then we’d walk up the stairs out onto the ice and we’d be on the rink for hours. They used to have to peel us off the ice.”

They are also here as ambassadors for the Climate & Sport Initiative, a group attempting to use the power of sports to raise awareness about the dangers of climate change. Agosta, who now lives near Vancouver, says it’s unfortunate that she won’t be able to provide the same winter memories for her children that her parents provided for her. As the planet gets warmer, the season for safely skating on outdoor ice is shrinking with each generation.

Scientists throughout the world have gathered evidence that the cold weather needed for outdoor hockey is growing less frequent and more erratic. Researchers in northwest Ontario found that the lakes in their region are frozen for shorter durations than they were in the 1970s. According to their study published in 2019, over the past half century the average time the lakes stay frozen has dropped at a rate of approximately four days per decade.

In Helsinki, Finland, which sits at roughly the same latitude as Hay River, a group of hockey friends noticed the anecdotal declines in their time on the ice outside and wanted to see if their memories of longer winters were accurate. They teamed up with a local meteorologist and used historical weather data to determine that the outdoor skating season for Finns has dropped from roughly 80 days per year in the late 1800s to under 50 days per year in the 21st century.

Troubled by what they found, the friends formed a group called Save Pond Hockey in 2015 that has been hosting tournaments to raise money for climate action charities in Finland and Canada.

“For a lot of people climate change seems like a far-off problem or a faraway problem,” said Steve Baynes, the group’s CEO and co-founder. “But the changes are happening right now, and they’re happening in everybody’s backyard. One way that touches my group of friends and hockey players across the world is shortening winters.”

The actual birthplace of ice hockey is a hotly debated topic, with one claim coming from a town called Deline a few hundred miles northwest of Hay River. Sir John Franklin oversaw a military post there in the 1820s and wrote about his men playing hockey on the frozen lake nearby. The first formal, indoor recorded game occurred in Montreal in 1875. And according to Save Pond Hockey’s research, more than a third of the outdoor season has disappeared since then.

A different group of scientists at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, expects the season to continue shrinking at an increasing rate in the most populated parts of Canada. Environmental sciences professor Robert McLeman is part of a team of researchers who have been tracking outdoor ice hockey conditions for the past decade through a crowd-sourced survey of amateur backyard rink-makers called RinkWatch. Roughly 1,500 different amateur rink-makers have contributed reports — many on a daily basis throughout the winter — that show the same patterns of decline.

McLeman said they project that by the end of this century at least another 34% of the outdoor skating season will disappear in cities such as Montreal and Toronto. He said some of their participants are already reaching a point where they have to decide if the effort needed to build and maintain their outdoor rinks isn’t worth it for the short amount of time they’re frozen. He said his team receives regular calls from local governments wondering if it still makes sense to fund the outdoor public skating surfaces in town.

“It’s becoming a very real cost-benefit analysis that cities and families have to make,” he said. “… Life will go on, and there are far more serious impacts of climate change, but culturally it is a huge loss. It would be a shame to lose this.”

In Hay River, the river and the Great Slave Lake that it feeds don’t usually thaw fully until May. The irony of discussing the threat of a warmer planet on a March day when temperatures hit minus-30 isn’t lost on the tournament organizers or the Zamboni drivers who by midday on Saturday were giving up on trying to keep the icicles from forming on their beards.

But in a town that depends on being able to predict the winter weather accurately, the residents are aware of and wary of the changes. The months-long stretches of frigid temperatures are now spotted with unexpected warm patches, which have caused damaging floods and slowed down industries that rely on the ice roads that connect small towns and mining operations in the region.

“It was colder before,” said Robert Bouchard, Hay River’s former deputy mayor and one of the hockey tournament’s initial organizers. “We’re not the Bahamas, but it’s getting warmer.”

The 2019 cancellation was still on Terry Rowe’s mind this past year when he learned that the Climate & Sport Initiative was looking to partner with local tournaments throughout Canada to raise awareness about the changing climate. Truth be told, the group’s promise to provide a few professional hockey celebrities for an all-star game at the tournament’s end did more to catch Rowe’s attention, but he jumped into the climate awareness aspect of the pitch with both feet as well.

Rowe helped to organize an auction the night that their honored guests arrived in order to raise money for an electric-powered Zamboni for the local ice arena. At the auction, as Bud Lights started to fill up their tables and loosen their wallets, the attendees — a group of mostly blue-collar hockey players — listened intently as a series of speakers laid out the rising challenge of a problem that is often scoffed at or deemed too political by many.

“That’s the power of sports,” said Ference, the former Oiler and Edmonton-area native who also won a Stanley Cup ring with the Bruins during his 16-year NHL career. “We all want the same things. We all want clean air and clean water and a good place for our kids. We might need to discuss how to get there, but we all want the same stuff. I think that’s a role that sports can play and bring everybody back to the same place.”

Ference has been conscious of his own impact on the environment for most of his life. He was in charge of his family’s compost pile as a boy and carried the same crop of Red Wiggler composting worms with him from Pittsburgh to Calgary to Boston and back to Edmonton during his playing days. During his time in Calgary (2003-07), he connected with scientist, activist and television host David Suzuki to start tracking the carbon footprint created by all the traveling his team did throughout its season.

He and a small group of his teammates purchased carbon offset credits during his last season in Calgary, a novel concept at the time, to try to neutralize their impact on the environment. The players’ union helped promote the idea the following year, and Ference says more than 500 players signed up to pay the several hundred dollars it cost to offset their carbon impact from the season.

Ference now works for the NHL, helping to build the league’s youth hockey program and pitching in on its efforts to curb hockey’s impact on the environment and raise fan awareness about the changing climate through the NHL Green program. He said the decision to fly up to Hay River to join the Polar Pond Hockey tournament was a no-brainer.

“A tournament like this, it’s just the same as a wedding or a party. It’s an excuse for having a good time,” Ference said. “Up north when there is ice everywhere, it’s just a good excuse to get together at the time of the year when you need it the most. You make friends and make memories during a depressing time of the year.”

While Ference and his fellow former pros bundled themselves up for a morning skate with Hay River’s kids on Sunday morning, many of the tournament’s other attendees stayed inside the warm pavilion by the river, where a non-profit group called the Arctic Energy Alliance was organizing a “climate fair” to share information about local renewable energy solutions and other climate action plans. Companies from Hay River and Yellowknife, the region’s largest city, set up booths to demonstrate their wood pellet biomass heating systems, solar power batteries, recycling programs and more.

Rowe, the tournament organizer who works as a real estate agent along with helping out with a group of businesses owned by his family, said he was excited to include the climate fair once the Climate & Sport Initiative got involved in bringing some celebrity players to the tournament.

“With the climate, I don’t know enough about it,” he said. “So I’m looking forward to learning about it.”

Rowe was less excited about being selected as one of the local players to take the ice for Sunday afternoon’s hour-long game alongside the former Olympians and NHLers.

“They’re going to dangle me,” he said. And they did, but Rowe still kept a big smile on his face as he lay flat on the ice after an unsuccessful attempt to break up an odd-man rush featuring a pair of players he grew up watching on television.

Friends and fans no longer seemed to notice the cold as they circled the rink for Sunday’s game, laughing and chirping at one another. The pros smiled too as they got a chance to play their game in its purest form, playfully elbowing one another out of the way as they set up local real estate agents and middle school students with breakout passes and one-timers.

Rowe said he plans to work with Save Pond Hockey in some fashion for the tournaments in future years. As players and fans warmed up and cracked their final celebratory beverages of the weekend after Sunday afternoon’s game, the conversation turned to how happy they all were to be back. After three long years without it, they were thrilled to be on the ice together and hopeful that they could find ways to continue the annual tradition for as long as possible.

ESPN’s John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.