November 22, 2011

From NEHJ: Backyards of dreams

By Jesse Connolly

When it comes to backyard rinks, long gone are the days where the only solution for the average parent was to pack down snow on the lawn, drag out the hose and hope for the best. Photo courtesy of Custom Ice Rinks.

Options for families looking to create a venue in which their kids can take to the ice just steps from their homes are now vast, to say the least. The big question, however, is whether they’re looking for a high-quality but affordable way of doing so or would like to create their own backyard version of the Winter Classic.

Don Garrison and the folks at Home Rinks offer the former, providing do-it-yourself kits for as little as $259 for a starter kit and $459 for the full-size, 36-foot-by-56-foot family package. All you have to do is pick up some lumber for boards, and you’re good to go. But before assembly begins, making sure you have the right terrain on which to build is paramount.

“The most important thing they need is a flat surface,” Garrison said. “They need the ground to be as flat as possible and somewhere not too near the home. With our kits, we provide everything but the yard and the lumber. We recommend three-quarter-inch plywood for the boards. If they can get the boards, we provide the brackets to connect the wood, we tell them how to do it, and they get everything else complete.”

Make no mistake, the kits from Home Rinks are all-inclusive.
“They get the liner, the number of brackets based on the size of their kit, practice cones, a practice puck, a Jake Rake — which is an ice resurfacer that connects to a garden hose,” Garrison said. “They get a learn-to-skate and learn-to-play-hockey DVD and an instructional DVD as well for setup and breakdown.”

With a liner that’s good for about three to four years and costs only about $150 to replace, as well as lumber that’s going to last a lifetime, Home Rinks provides an affordable, reliable option that requires minimal maintenance to keep up.

“Once you resurface the ice, you just need a shovel to clear off where you’ve resurfaced, a hose that gets long enough to reach the furthest corner of your rink, pucks, some lights and maybe an area for a bonfire right around it,” Garrison said.

While many will be attracted to such an alluring price-point and the easy upkeep, others may look to build something more elaborate. Custom Ice Rinks, which is based in Ontario but serves all of North America, may have the solution.

The company’s kit comes with a state-of-the-art, refrigerated system that’s capable of sustaining ice for a longer stretch of time, as even temperatures nearing 50 degrees won’t have any ill effect.

“The naturally frozen system might be frozen by Christmas and it might not,” said Glenn Wilder, who partnered up with former NHL player Dave Gagner and engineer Brendan Lenko shortly after they founded Custom Ice Rinks. “You’re going to get six to eight weeks max, depending on where you are. And you’re going to have three or four major thaws, where your ice is going to be totally melted on you where you’ve got to start all over again.

“We designed a system that can get you four to five months of skating. If it’s Boston, you’re looking at say the beginning of November to the end of March. You’re going to have good quality ice.”

While Custom Ice Rinks’ cooling system requires only occasional, hands-on tweaking — as the pipes laid underneath regularly filter glycol back and forth to be chilled — and the amount of required maintenance is hardly overwhelming, the initial cost may be a deal-breaker for some that just can’t fathom shelling out that kind of cash.
But Wilder compares the purchase to above-ground pools, which carry a similar price tag but can be used for about half as much time as a rink each year.

“A lot of people will say $25,000 is a lot of money, and I’ll say, ‘Compared to what?’” Wilder said. “You could pay $25,000 to $40,000 for an above-ground swimming pool. With those swimming pools, people don’t think twice about doing it because they understand the concept of swimming and they’ve been doing it for 30 years.”

One of the benefits Wilder focuses on is the exclusive access kids will have to their own ice surface where they can hone their hockey and skating skills. It certainly worked out for Gagner’s son Sam, who is now in his fifth season with the Oilers.

“Dave’s son Sam was one of our first ice rinks and he would skate 15-20 hours a week on their ice rink,” Wilder said. “One kid that used to play a lot with Sam on his backyard rink was a guy by the name of Johnny Tavares, who is playing for New York (Islanders) now as you know. There’s two guys that spent hours and hours out there. They’re good hockey players, but it really helped them hone their skills.”

But whether a family is considering adorning their yard with their own rink is doing so in hopes of fostering a future NHL player or simply providing a venue for the neighborhood kids to enjoy a friendly game of shinny, Garrison and Wilder — no matter how different their approaches may be — are both striving toward the same goal.

When you’re done putting that brand-new, backyard cathedral together, it doesn’t matter if it’s for entertaining a few little tikes or a serious skater looking to sharpen his skills. It’s all about having a good time and reveling in your creation with family and friends.

“It’s not only good for improving your hockey skills, but for having a ton of family fun,” Wilder said. “Whether they’re figure skaters, hockey players or they just want to go out there and have a good time, it’s a great way to get out and get active in the wintertime.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com