Hockey season and indoor skating are in jeopardy across the country this fall, so when Silverina Selvaratnam stared out at her small Southern Ontario backyard she saw more than a grassy slope. She saw a rink and started planning.
So did fellow backyard rink rookies Tim Martin in Sturgeon County, Alta., Mike Lowe in Edmonton, Victoria Marsili in Guelph, Ont., and Amy Taylor in Shawville, Que., among hundreds if not thousands of other Canadians.
On the internet they found a supportive Facebook community and a burgeoning network of online backyard rink supply stores offering everything from plastic sheeting to contain rink water during warm spells to semi-professional-looking boards, nets and lighting systems.
One can even find several design plans for a “homeboni” – homemade Zamboni-style ice resurfacers occasionally pulled by a yard tractor but more frequently made from ordinary plumbing supplies, buckets and even camping coolers.
Business is booming on all fronts as Canadian and northern U.S. hockey and skating enthusiasts confront a winter where officials have closed rinks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
At Ms. Selvaratnam’s house in Markham, the rink project began with hard labour as her husband, Sheshan, and three children, Ethan, Amayah and Aria, excavated a good portion of their backyard by hand to correct a slope that had made a rink nearly impossible.
“With everything shutting down, we thought it would be good for them, but especially my [eldest] son who loves hockey,” Ms. Selvaratnam said. “We agreed to dig the yard and buy the liner if he will help his sisters with their skating. But it’s also about helping us keep some sanity.”
Ms. Marsili in Guelph turned down her 11-year-old son Evan’s request for a backyard rink for years, given how much time he spent at the community arena. “Now, my biggest thing is how much public skating will there be? Their league is running now, but for how long?” Ms. Marsili said. “I’m just a little worried about whether I can build this thing and if it’s going to work.”
While many rink builders do-it-themselves with lumber on trampled snow, a growing industry of rink suppliers sell everything from inexpensive plastic sheeting to cooling systems costing tens of thousands of dollars. A plastic lining has become a key tool in eastern and southern climates where winter melt is commonplace, especially as climate change increasingly affects temperatures. Some old-fashioned purists insist on just using flattened snow or a cleared pond, plans that work best on the Prairies or northern latitudes.
Chas Birkett, co-owner of Guelph-based RinkMaster, said he expects business to double this year. “I don’t know if this will be a one-time COVID thing, or a permanent thing,” Mr. Birkett said. “But for a lot of people it becomes a labour of love.”
Dylan Gastel, chief executive officer of EZ ICE Inc. in Newton, Mass., said his operation has “quadrupled the supply chain of everything.”
“There are a lot of people stuck at home,” he added. “So many families are looking for stuff to do outside. It’s much like how suppliers ran out of bicycles this summer.”
For many people, the draw is more than finding a way to deal with COVID-19 restrictions. Ms. Taylor in Shawville said she has been “desperate to become a hockey mom” her whole life. Her three-year-old boy, Ozzie, is finally ready to learn to skate. “Public skating is cancelled and we figured this is a great way to let him burn off some toddler energy,” she said.
Just before Christmas every year, Darren Dreger, a TSN hockey reporter and long-time rink builder, collects and shares photos of outdoor rinks to his one million followers on Twitter.
Mr. Dreger grew up in rural Saskatchewan skating on farmer-made ponds known as dugouts on the Prairies. His career brought him to Southern Ontario, and around 2004 when his two children were beginner skaters, he started making ice.
Mr. Dreger fell in love with the romance of the backyard rink, going to ever-greater lengths to provide skating to his now-grown daughter and son in Brooklin, Ont. He’s bought houses with the rink in mind. One year he ordered a massive yard excavation for a better rink while he took the family away on summer vacation. “It was the perfect 25-foot by 50-foot pad,” he said. “When we came home, my wife, Holly, said, ‘What have you done here?’”
He spent thousands of dollars on a cooling plant to expand the season. “I loved that thing,” Mr. Dreger said, but he was not trying to recreate the organized arena experience.
“What struck me, as my daughter and son got older and my son played higher levels of hockey, is that the sport had a business tone to it. Everything is so structured. I wanted them to have a place to go out, shoot pucks, fool around, practise the goal celebration,” Mr. Dreger said.
His last home until this fall had an old-fashioned backyard pond he cleared with a snowblower and flooded the surface to create fresh ice using a 100-metre hose. “That pond was spectacular.” He just moved again. His two children are in university but living at home waiting out the pandemic. “I might just do it again,” he said.
Mr. Dreger and other veterans of the backyard rink business had tips for the rookies.
Finding a level piece of ground is a must, unless you have an unlimited supply of water, a very waterproof tarp and frame, or are willing to build up low spots with dirt, wooden pallets, piled sacks of soil, or other fill.
Prepare in the fall, but don’t set up too early. “Your liner will become a garbage bag if you put it in before the leaves are down,” Mr. Dreger said.
Naomie Duquette of Lévis, Que., near Quebec City, is in her second year with a rink for her children Léopold, 6, and Chloé, 4. “Go simple your first year, it doesn’t have to be all fancy,” she said. “Build a frame and throw down a tarp.”
Christian Nols, who lives in a suburb south of Montreal, advises rink makers to wait until they have at least a few days of -10 weather. There’s nothing worse than a rink caught in half-frozen limbo.
Debate rages over some issues: Is it better to fill the rink all at once and wait for a freeze, or to put on layers of ice gradually to create a more solid base?
Martin Zacharias of Calgary has a list of horror stories he’s seen on the Backyard Rinks Facebook community – a highly supportive group where a call for help from a Montreal newspaper reporter and rookie rink builder received 140 comments in a matter of days.
People have put too much water in their rinks, bursting their boards. Others have flooded basements. One rink owner was fined by his city after causing a mudslide into a street. Wind storms have layered leaves on freshly frozen ice. Squirrels and possums have been found frozen in rinks.
“It’s a good thing people in the Facebook group have a good sense of humour,” Mr. Zacharias said.
Shelley Jackson of Grey County, Ont., advised new builders to avoid letting perfection get in the way of a good skate. “The first year I told the kids it was too rough, it would be like skating on a gravel road,” she said. “They didn’t care. They skated anyway.”
Most of all, Mr. Dreger added, don’t give up if things start out badly. The ice will be bumpy to start, you may have holes where water leaks, “you will have times where it seems it will never happen,” he said. “But stay with it. Suddenly it all comes together and you will rarely feel so satisfied when you see your kids out there skating.”
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