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Backyard rinks

Frozen in time Add to ...

Winter gets old quick.

It’s why spring training gets grown men misty-eyed -- the promise of renewal; of Jose Bautista following up on a 54-home run surprise; of summer.

Up here we’ve just got longer days and the late afternoon trickle of winter gurgling like so many little creeks down the eaves troughs to remind us that time passes.

The hockey world will have their eyes on Calgary for Sunday's Heritage Classic, outdoors at frigid McMahon stadium

I’ll be watching with envy while my ice melts.

In any other February I’d welcome a thaw like news my wife went to university with Uma Thurman and -- by the way -- guess who was coming to visit on the weekend!

But this winter I did it; I built a rink in our yard. It would be wrong to say this winter I became Canadian, but it would be dead-on to say this winter I became a certain kind of Canadian, one that embraces our most formidable season and got a full-on, hockey soaker.

It was in some ways a leap of faith. My son, 7, and a recently eager hockey player, had heard about Wayne Gretzky having one and so he wanted his own.

What the hell, I figured. We’d cleared out our over-grown yard in the summer with an eye toward some basketball shoot-arounds and soccer kick-abouts. A rink was a distant possibility, even if it seemed like work, never my favourite thing. But the leaves fell, hockey season started and his enthusiasm forced my lethargy to tap-out in the first round.

A few hundred bucks spent on some 2 x12s and a big tarp; a cold December afternoon using a power drill in the rain and there it was -- a waterproof box waiting for water and winter.

And you know what? It worked. There were a few missteps, such as venturing out on the rink too eagerly following a rapid cold spell and breaking through what was just a frozen crust, turning the rink into something resembling a margarita -- there is a certain humility forced on you with the realization you realize you can’t make ice right.

But some soothing words from more experienced hands – rink builders, it turns out, are a community unto themselves – and most importantly a nice, long cold snap and presto: an ice pad, right outside our TV room.

The benefits have been nearly too many to mention, but I’m not sure there will be many moments of parental pride that surpass having your kid turn from his video game and ask if he can go for a skate.

It kills me every time. Does he really think I’m going to tell him no? That we’ve invested too much money in that PlayStation and dammit, he better keep using it?

On with the skates and out he goes, sometimes with his buddies – the rink can fit four pretty comfortably. His sister will make the occasional cameo, but mainly it's just him or the two of us. He coincidently learned to whistle this winter, and so he’ll be out whistling while he dekes; his selective hearing in evidence every time he winds up and takes aim at our shed which now sports more black marks than Gerry Cheevers’ old mask.

I get out there with him as much as I can; usually with my boots on as I'm a terrible skater and my role is merely is to feed him for one timers and watch every time he says “watch”. Sometimes I’ll get my skates and lumber from side to side while he buzzes me at high speed. Nothing, apparently, getting a seven-year-old boy into hysterics faster than skating circles – no metaphor -- around his old man.

My pleasures have been more vicarious, but they’ve come in waves: Experimenting with various techniques for getting the kind of glassy finish you can brag about like a retiree might a fairway-smooth lawn (a good sweep and buckets of luke-warm water worked for me); stuffing a skate rut with some snow and sanding it off with a puck, like Andy Van Hellemond at the Montreal Forum; watching your flesh-and-blood master a wrist shot and go “cross-bar down” for the first time.

Want to turn a 40-something man into a kid? Send him out outside on a starry, arctic night with a hose and some buckets and wait for him to come back encased in a veneer of glass after spilling water all over himself. It is, frankly, my new working definition for neato.

Seriously the whole winter has been like that.

This week’s thaw is reminder it won't last forever. In the meantime I’ve turned myself into a farmer, checking the long-term forecasts to gauge when I should get more water on the rink and what my week is going to be like; the rink having become such a big part of it.

The other day I was suddenly overcome with the urge to get out there by myself and so I did. Just a big, wobbly-skating kid figuring out how to do a hockey stop, savouring the crunch, hiss and scrape of my blades on the ice – my ice -- waiting for my son to come home from school so I could say “watch.”

How much longer? Who knows? We’ve got a pretty good base and it looks like we’re going to get a few more cold nights this week, so I’ll be flooding like mad in the vain hope of extending the life of the rink for even a few more days.

My little guy has loved every minute out there, but not as much as I have.

I can make ice just fine, as it turns out. Now If only I could freeze time.

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