The story of how Ben Bartel acquired the position is built on layers, he says, as he peels those layers away one by one.
It’s rooted in the land to the back of Bartel’s property on Niagara Stone Road. That land, which now belongs to the Gretzky winery, passed hands in sale from his father to Hillebrand Estates Winery and then finally to Gretzky. Bartel grew up on that land.
He says, as a kid, he would jump at the opportunity to lace up his skates when the slopes in the field collected pools of water – it would flash-freeze to make his own personal ice rink.
“I put on my skates and I would skate in that field. I was skating right where that rink is now, in the dark, alone. Now I have 100 people there. There’s music and drinks and food.”
Before securing his seat atop the tractor pulling an Olympia ice resurfacer, Bartel caught word of plans to build the winery. Among his many hobbies, Bartel is a licenced pilot. Armed with his ultralight plane and a passion for aerial photography, he offered to take photos of the property. He continued to take them throughout construction.
In a casual partnership, he asked only for sponsorship for his Terry Fox run as compensation. He provided the winery with a photographic timeline of their construction.
A working relationship between Bartel and the winery was formed.
Looming retirement encouraged his next move. He was actively on the lookout for something to keep him busy during the winter months; in warmer weather there were no shortage of hobbies to keep him busy. Whether bicycling down the parkway, flying over the town or kayaking through the river, he says he was always up to something physical. The colder months left him restless.
When Fort George opened a public ice rink, he spent most of that winter taking advantage. Sixteen times, he counted; he had it written on the calendar.
Watching the men working maintenance in the booth, he says it occurred to him that was something he’d like to try. He had experience driving heavy machinery, having spent time on the neighbour’s tractor when he was young. His career working at GM didn’t hurt.
“I spent over 30 years at GM as a tool and die maker; I’m machinery oriented. In the maintenance department officially, so that stuff comes naturally.”
The cold doesn’t phase him either, he says. A true Canadian.
The Fort George employees informed him he needed to work for the Niagara Parks in order to secure a position with them.
“That sounded too much like full-time work. I moved on,” he said.
When the rink at the Gretzky Winery opened, he says an opportunity presented itself. Already having a working relationship with the company, he inquired about the rink. During a meeting one day, he says he asked about the hiring process for rink maintenance. They told him they would look into it and get back to him.
Bartel was persistent. He says he let them know he wanted the position.
“I would be interested in helping out – and I will follow up on that.”
Follow up he did. He says he contacted them again and they called him back with an offer.
“No interview, no application, no resume. Someone just called me and said, ‘Do you want to come sign up?’ I said yea, sure. So, there I am.”
Now, every Saturday and Sunday he heads over to take care of the ice.
It’s a job he’s passionate about and has a lot of fun with, and he says, it’s better than working at GM.
“It’s a much better atmosphere because everyone there is trained to be hospitable – not at GM. This is a good gig. It’s a fair bit of physical work so I actually get exercise while I’m working. The first year I lost weight over the winter, normally I gain weight.”
Bonnie Bartel, wife, says he’s appreciative of the position and of the people he works with.
“He’s never bored, he just loves the job. That’s hard work, shoveling snow, driving the [Olympia] (similar to a Zamboni); he is suited for it, he really is. It’s perfect for him. He doesn’t take it for granted,” she said.
With so many people visiting the winery and taking advantage of the rink every weekend, Bartel says he feels like a bit of a celebrity when he pulls the tractor out of the shed. Skaters are asked to vacate the rink while he circles the ice, leaving a pristine surface in his wake.
“It’s tense because you have 100 people watching you. I always call it showtime – ‘It’s showtime!’”
“I’m kind of used to that though because I used to record wedding videos – for 20 years, just a self-made business on the side. You’re always working in a crowd and they’re always watching you, you’re practically the center of attention. I was cool with it, just do your job, forget about everybody else.”
Pleased with the time he spends at the rink, he couldn’t think of a more fitting position for himself.
“The neat thing about this is that I’m in my own backyard again, it gives me something to do for the winter, and I meet lots of nice people. It’s a skill, a talent, an art – to take care of the ice. So, I’m occupied, and I’m at home.”
He says he’ll keep it up for as long as he can.
“I think I might keep it up ‘til I’m 65, if I can manage it. Unless something better comes along for the winter – like working in a resort in the south.”
Growing up in NOTL in the middle of farmland, Bartel witnessed the advancement of the town. He says, while it’s not all bad, it can be too busy at times.
“I grew up on that property. We started off living in the boondocks, and then civilization moved in on us. I think it’s a little crowded now, for my liking. But who would have thought a facility like that, a world class facility, who would have thought that it would end up in my backyard?
“We’re victims of our own success here now because it’s getting a little too crowded. People want to move in and convert farmland into subdivisions.
“The greatness of this place comes from the agriculture and the history – not from overcrowding.”
Aside from the town building itself up too much, Bartel says the growth has provided him with new opportunities; now he can spend his weekends doing what he loves.
“I always tell people it’s not a dream come true, but it’s beyond my wildest dreams; I never dreamt that.
I’m really tickled by the job. It’s a blast, it’s a gas – I’m blown away.”
Bartel jokes, “It occurred to me that I’m a professional skater, I waited late in my life to go pro.”