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Minn. man sees warming climate through outdoor hockey's decline

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The outdoor hockey season has shrunk dramatically in recent decades.
It'd be unthinkable to try an outdoor hockey season today, Jay McCleary says. That wasn't so when he was a boy.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

Jay McCleary remembers the winters of his youth as ones that kids growing up today can't have. 

As a boy, McCleary was a "rink rat." All his time was spent outside, specifically skating.

"After school, if time permitted, it was heading to the rink. And on Saturdays, all day long at the rink," he said. Sundays were church, dinner, then more time on the ice.

In 1972, when McCleary was in his early teens, his family moved from Cottage Grove to Red Wing, Minn. It was around Thanksgiving break when they moved, and hockey practice was to start soon. 

McCleary quickly surrounded himself with more hockey, meeting the school team shortly after arriving in his new town.

"That's really where my first group of friends in school came from," McCleary recalled. "Skating with them, and again, enjoying the outdoors."

He used to skate outside from shortly after Thanksgiving until spring. But that's just not an option for today's kids, he told MPR News on a 40 degree day last month. 

"It's no longer a December-March season. It's now, 'Boy, we hope we can get four to five weeks of outdoor ice.'"

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Jay McCleary
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file

McCleary watched this firsthand through his 34-year career with the city of Red Wing where he used to work on buildings and grounds. "I watched the guys there struggle to try to get the rinks ready by Christmas. In some years they can't get 'em ready by Christmas."

The average winter temperature has increased about 1 degree per decade since the 1970s. This month's average temperature is 2 degrees warmer than it was the year McCleary moved to Red Wing as a teen. 

It'd be unthinkable to try an outdoor hockey season today, McCleary said. And the giant snow banks he remembers playing in as a kid all winter long aren't as frequent.

McCleary has spent his life outside. Now 60 years old, he golfs, bicycles and keeps a cabin in northern Wisconsin. 

If you really look, McCleary said, folks with a few decades of life experience can see a climate changed from their youth. 

"It's a gradual change, but when you think about the differences from your childhood to today it's a really big change that's taken place."

This story is based on an interview from Climate Cast, the MPR News weekly podcast on the latest climate change news and research. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.