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Backyard ice rinks: ‘There’s no end to the games you can make up’

Hockey players seize the winter months with as much zeal as their baseball- and basketball-playing cousins do the spring and summer.

This winter has made even the hardiest Minnesotans question why we bleeping live here, but not hockey players, every last one of whom I’ve ever known relish the chance to skate and stickhandle with the wind in their hair and hot snow at their cheeks. Under park lights, a silvery moon, or brilliant sun- and snow-kissed blue skies, hockey players seize the winter months with as much zeal as their baseball- and basketball-playing cousins do the spring and summer.

Outdoor hockey has an enduringly romantic hold over this area, as beautifully captured by Twin Cities filmmaker/hockey player Tony Franklin‘s just-released film-poem “The Legends of the Isles,” as evidenced by the growing popularity of the 9-year-old U.S. Pond Hockey Championships at Lake Nokomis, by the forthcoming ode to outdoor hockey “On Frozen Pond,” and by the ambassadorial likes of Cole Pulkrabek, a kid from Euclid, Minn., whose spinal muscular atrophy condition led him and his dad to rig up his own Zamboni, which he’s seen driving, with Zen-like concentration, over his own backyard ice to the sound of the Gear Daddies’ “Zamboni” in this should-be viral home video.

In a recent feature that dubs Warroad, Minn., “Hockey Town USA” (“Minnesota’s Olympic Hockey Cradle (Pop. 1,781)”) the New York Times nicely mythologized the Slukynsky family’s backyard rink and noted that for most hockey-playing Olympians, it all starts with the backyard rink. But competition and a means to medals isn’t what it’s all about.

“If you’re looking for another way to show off your energy, creativity, selflessness and affection (as a parent), I suggest constructing a backyard skating rink,” ESPN columnist John Buccigross recently wrote. “It takes hard work and tests one’s patience, but the payoff is huge and the lessons learned and given are deep.”

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With that in mind, I put out a call for readers’ photos and stories of their own backyard rinks in Minnesota. Call what came in Portraits From Rink Rat Heaven:

Photo courtesy of Ian Davies

Ian Davies, Minneapolis: “I built my first backyard rink this year for my three sons and I. It has been a dream of mine since my dad and I tried to do it and failed 30 years ago. I grew up playing in Northern Minnesota and always dreamed of having a backyard rink. Now with sons of my own, I was bound and determined to build one and make it work. It’s modest, 30’ x 50,’ no bells and whistles, but we love it and have had plenty of bruised knees to go around. More important is the time we get to spend together, priceless and irreplaceable. We already have bigger plans for next year.”

Photo courtesy of Jessie King

Jessie King, St. Paul: “We’ve been building one in our yard for 13 years now, and the kids and neighbor kids enjoy it. We’ve had to expand it over the years – taking down a few trees and a fence along the way. We’ve had to fortify it with nets around the ends to protect our and the neighbors’ windows, and our next-door neighbor found two pucks on his roof this past spring.”

Photo courtesy of Cathy Berger

Cathy Berger, Minnetonka: “My husband Pat spends countless hours hooking up the hose and flooding the rink until it’s just right. Many nights he’s out in the middle of the night, well below zero, even when he wants to just curl up on the couch and have a glass of wine.”

Photo courtesy of Cathy Berger

“We use this rink from the first day there’s any ice to skate on until the slush is all gone. We have many family night two-on-two pick-up hockey games.”

Photo courtesy of Cathy Berger

“Our first grader Gus will be out there all night if we let him.”

Courtesy of Eric Kassel

Eric Kassel, Minneapolis: “This is me, doing my best hockey trading card pose at our backyard rink in Bloomington in the late ‘70s. And here’s a video my dad shot of us in the backyard and Bloomington Ice Gardens.”

Paul Kassel, Bloomington: “Why did I do it? Because I am a dad and I liked to build things and I had two sons that appreciated what I built for them. We used that rink a lot. I did it for three or four years. The first year I killed the grass underneath. Then someone told me to wait until there was snow on the ground, then tamp it down and pour water over that. I put [Eric] inside one of the plastic sleds and pulled him over the snow to push it down. It worked and the grass came back the next spring.”

Photo courtesy of Janet Midtbo

Janet Midtbo, Richfield: “This is my husband, Andy. He’s been flooding the yard for about 10 years. Our kids Simon and Celia both learned to skate on it, on single blade skates pushing a chair in front of them. Both kids play hockey now. You can skate right up to the fire pit at night. Andy and I both grew up in South Minneapolis. I walked to the rink at Pershing and he walked to the rink at Armatage, no surprise that we have a rink in our backyard now. It’s surrounded by a playhouse, treehouse, zip line, and a chicken coop that houses six chickens.”

Photo courtesy of Diane Fewer

Diane Fewer, Edina: “My husband, Mike, has built a rink for our son in the backyard of our house on Sunnyside since he was 3. He’s 17 now. It’s not very big, but he sure does enjoy it.”

Photo courtesy of Emily Pernu

Dennis Pernu, Minneapolis: “I grew up outside a small town on the Iron Range in the ‘0s when hockey was even bigger there than it is now. I’d spend hours at the outdoor rink by our house, typically from around Thanksgiving to mid-March. My parents would pick me up at 9:30 when they turned off the outdoor lights.

“Our two sons aren’t yet old enough to hang out by themselves at Minneapolis park rinks, but I wanted them to have the same experience I had, if they wanted, of skating on outdoor ice pretty much whenever they please. This is our third year with a backyard rink. There are few better feelings than being on skates, and no better ‘sports sounds’ than frozen pucks clacking off sticks and wooden boards and ringing off steel posts. Especially when it’s really cold; it seems to carry sound better. And when you’re on a piece of ice even this small (16 x 32), there’s no end to the games you can make up with a stick and a bucket of pucks.”

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Photo courtesy of Emily Pernu

“I was a bit nervous about building it the first year (Would we have a $600 water bill? Would it flood our basement in the spring?), but it’s pretty dialed in now. I documented the set-up this fall for my employer’s blog (here and here). The name on the end boards was inspired by the Charleston War Memorial in ‘Slap Shot,’ which my dad brought me to see in the theater when I was 8. It’ll probably last a few more years before the boys are too big for it, but who knows? I go out there by myself occasionally and shoot pucks when I have some time to kill.”

Photo courtesy of Emily Pernu

“It does require a bit of upkeep. You want to get out there and get the snow off as soon as you can and shovel it after every use. I spray a thin layer on it about once a week, but this year’s weird weather — one or two warm, sunny days followed by several subzero days — has actually made for some phenomenal ice.”

Photo courtesy of Phillip O’Toole

Phillip O’Toole, Minneapolis: “I started making one seven years ago. My friends and I play hockey 5-7 weekends a winter and my daughter figure skates on it. [This photo is of me] making adjustments to the rope lighting under the rink.”

Photo courtesy of Phillip O’Toole

“Several families bring their little ones over to learn to skate, but its biggest use is at my annual Winter Solstice party.”

Photo courtesy of Eric Krantz

Eric Krantz, Chanhassen: “I’ve built a rink on Kerber Pond in Kerber Pond Park in Chanhassen, which butts up to my property, for the last six years. My six kids are the main rink rats but many in the neighborhood hit it and all have permission to plug in the lights anytime and use it. I run a few hoses to flood it when needed, we use four 1000 watt halogen lights to light it, and an occasional fire next to the rink keeps us warm, too.”

Photo courtesy of Ben Garvin

Ben Garvin, St. Paul: “This is my first backyard rink, not a great photo but you get the idea of what I slapped together. When I moved to Minnesota from Arkansas, I couldn’t fathom that lakes actually froze enough to walk on. It blew my mind. I’m not comfortable on skates, barely know how to get around. But my kids are loving it, and they drag me out into the backyard often.”

Photo courtesy of Sarah Streitz

Sarah Streitz, Minneapolis: “No doubt there are more high-end rinks in our neighborhood, and the one we have is small, but our son Harry and his friends come to skate on it all the time, despite the size. The flooding of and maintenance of the rink is a labor of love for my son and husband. They are obsessed!”

Photo courtesy of John Soshnik

John Soshnik, Minneapolis: “When we lived in Eagan, I made a rink in our backyard for my daughter Lily and son Jack from around 2005-2012. The rink was about a quarter of the size of a regulation hockey rink, and had a corner cut off due to an inconsiderate hill. But it was well used by the kids and their friends, and hosted the occasional skating party with our friends and family. The kids are both off in college now and we have moved back to Minneapolis, so my rink building days may be over, but never say never.”

Photo courtesy of Tony Nelson

Tony Nelson, Minneapolis: “My brothers were six and 10 years older than me, and they did a lot of the work, along with my dad, in the early years. We had two rinks, one at our South Minneapolis house and one when we moved to 11th Avenue in Richfield. After a couple years of a real basic rink, we added boards, lights, benches, and chicken-wire fencing. We were the last house on the block to have a rink, so we always flooded it and everyone, including lots of hockey-playing neighbors, helped with that and the shoveling.” 

Photo courtesy of Tony Nelson
Photo courtesy of Tony Nelson
Photo courtesy of Tony Nelson