Squeals of delight can be heard as you make your way up the driveway toward the backyard, and then you begin to hear the most Canadian of sounds – the scraping of skate blades on a frozen surface and the thwack of a hockey stick striking a rubber puck.
The gate is not locked and you step into a wintry scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The backyard is mostly overtaken by an outdoor natural ice rink, vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature. On this morning, the conditions are perfect for a little shinny – mostly sunny with temperatures hovering several degrees below freezing and a hint of fluttering snow.
A trio of young kids, two girls and a boy, busy themselves chasing a puck under the watchful eye of an adult, also on skates, who is kept alert by trying to keep from getting bowled over.
The ice surface – about 15 metres by eight metres – is surrounded by low wooden boards. An old, rickety, red metal hockey net is positioned at one end of the rink.
At the opposite end, discarded clothing mimics the other goal. Netting has been strung up high between two posts behind in order to protect a large dining room window from being shattered by an errant shot.
This idyllic scene is one that is played out in backyards every winter across Canada.
What makes this one a little different is that the midtown Toronto home – about a 10-minute drive from Rogers Centre – belongs to Ross Atkins, the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Born in Greensboro, N.C., and raised in Miami, the 45-year-old was more likely to be familiar with Jai alai than hockey while growing up.
In fact, Atkins had never skated regularly and didn’t even own a pair of skates until shortly after he was hired as the Blue Jays GM at the end of the 2015 season after 16 years in the front office of the Cleveland Indians.
About six months later, Atkins and his wife, Christine, and their two daughters – Jane, now 12 and Rita, now 11 – decided to buy a house in Toronto.
That decision drew praise from Blue Jays fans. Massachusetts native J.P. Ricciardi, the Blue Jays GM for eight seasons from 2002 through 2009, took heat over his refusal to live in Toronto year-round.
The fact that Atkins and his family embraced a new country and moved into a house that had a pre-existing backyard rink qualifies the current GM at the very least as an honorary Canadian. “That works,” Atkins said with a smile.
This is the fourth winter that the Atkins family have enjoyed a backyard rink. And the baseball executive credits its existence with helping to ease the transition into their adopted city.
“I think the rink definitely adds to it,” Atkins said. “But this neighbourhood’s been incredible. Christine’s extremely close with our neighbours and I have become close because of her connections. And we spend time with them, we’re in their homes, they’re in ours.
“The rink makes just a natural way to invite our friends over and get together. It’s not an uncommon occurrence for people just to come by with their skates and we’ll jump out there. It’s definitely been a benefit.”
And their kids love it, as does Rocky, the Atkins’s 8-year-old female rescue dog (a Labrador retriever-Great Pyrenees mix) who is often an eager participant in the on-ice activities.
On this day, Ross Atkins quickly laces up his skates and makes his way onto the ice. Considering he hasn’t been a regular skater for all that long he manoeuvres confidently, if a bit woodenly, across the rink to mix it up with the kids.
“It’s great,” Rita Atkins proclaims. “You can also go out without skates too and just slide around in your Uggs.”
Jane Atkins was busy tracking the puck along the ice, grasping a left-handed stick when she obviously shoots right. “I don’t know how to use this,” she said dismissively when it was pointed out to her.
The game is joined by Jason Crowder, who lives two doors away from the Atkins and has become a good friend of the family, and Sidney, his 8-year-old son. It was Crowder who donated the one net.
Crowder, a geotechnical engineer, created what he calls a “homemade Zamboni.” It is a contraption made with plastic tubing that is connected by a hose to an outdoor hot-water tap and then pushed across the ice surface to keep it as smooth as a pool table.
“The Atkins have been awesome since they moved in,” he said. “They’ve just told us, whether they’re home or not, just come out any time and just skate. We don’t even have to ask.”
A backyard rink was by no means a prerequisite to the Atkins family moving into their chosen neighbourhood. The previous owners had three little boys – “all hockey nuts,” Christine Atkins said – and they had enlisted the services of a company that installs outdoor rinks once the weather turns cold enough.
“The realtor told us about the rink and we really didn’t think too much about it,” she said. “But once the fall arrived we got the call and we thought, ‘Why not.' ”
Ross Atkins said he was aware that Canada was a hockey-mad country, but had no idea of the extent until he moved to Toronto.
“I don’t think I’ve met a Dad yet who doesn’t play in a regular [pickup] hockey game,” Atkins said. “That’s atypical of anything that I’ve ever experienced.
“It’s not uncommon in the U.S. for someone to play in a regular basketball game, but it’s like one out of every 10 dads. It’s not 10 out of 10 like it seems to be up here with hockey.”
Atkins said he has resisted several invites to join a beer-league hockey team in Toronto. “I always ask the guys, does it get cheeky out there and I’m always told yes,” Atkins said. “I think I’ll stay away.”