Home ice advantages
Ask owners: Backyard rinks are very cool
NORFOLK — If there is such a thing as hockey heaven, this is it. Just steps from the Barnard home, kids race up and down the ice, leaving vapor trails that float above the Christmas lights surrounding the backyard rink. The delicate sound of skates scraping ice is punctuated by the thwack of a hard slap shot that echoes through the trees. A passing snow shower adds a little Currier & Ives to the mix.
Duncan Barnard, a British accountant with a wife and three children, sips a beer, warms his hands at the nearby fire pit, and watches his kids and the neighbors’ kids play under the lights.
Every night here is the Winter Classic, with home-ice advantage. There is no waiting for ice time, no witches’ brew of a hockey bag to lug to distant generic arenas. Just step outside, lace ’em up, and play.
“They say embrace the New England winter, and so we did,’’ Barnard says.
Each year, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Barnard, with help from neighbors and the Internet, builds a 35-foot-by-64-foot ice rink, complete with boards and plastic liners. Total cost, including lumber and bolts: $500. That doesn’t include the water bill for the 28 hours his garden hose runs nonstop to fill the rink.
Except for having to repair a couple of ripped porch screens from errant pucks, the rink has been a joy, Barnard says.
In this house, there are no couch potatoes.
“The kids don’t care about Xbox,’’ says Barnard, smiling broadly. “I don’t have to ask them to go out.’’
Barnard says his daughters, Charlotte, 10, and Lucy, 11, use the rink for figure skating even while their 13-year-old son, Will, is in the midst of a hockey game.
They get about three months’ use of the rink each year.
“It’s like a pool in summer,’’ says Barnard. “It’s better in the mornings and the evenings. When it hits about 35 degrees, it softens.’’
Backyard rinks require 3-4 inches of ice. Sloping is the biggest problem, experts say. For those who want to try this at home, Barnard’s advice is simple: Do your homework.
“There’s about 50 things that can go wrong,’’ he says. “We were lucky, our yard was perfect.’’
Barnard had his own problems one year. A mini-tsunami.
“It was 10 days before Christmas and the water hadn’t frozen yet,’’ says Barnard. “The supports gave way, and the entire rink was going down the driveway.’’
He has also trained the kids to shovel the ice. And with the help of a neighbor, Barnard built his own portable ice resurfacer using PVC piping, hose, and a used towel.
“Cost me $25,’’ he says.
He also reads all the chatter from folks who post tips online.
“Some guy uses his wife’s iron to smooth out rough spots,’’ he explains. “Another guy puts milk in the water to turn his ice white. Another guy whitewashed his ice with paint but it didn’t work. The ice melted and the kids were covered in white.’’
Even NHL stars have failed at making backyard rinks in their youth.
“We tried quite a few,’’ says Bruins goalie Tim Thomas. “It’s hard. We were unsuccessful, for the most part. I think there was one that worked out.’’
Slippery slope The rink is such a priority to some hockey dads that they buy houses based on the backyard.
Derek Maguire, who played for Harvard and then in the American Hockey League in the 1990s, bought a fixer-upper in Hingham for that reason. His wife, Megan, liked the house about as much as a goalie likes a breakaway. But she agreed to tolerate the renovations to please her hockey-loving family.
“My wife likes to say there was an ulterior motive for buying the house: an acre and a quarter left plenty of property for a hockey rink,’’ says Maguire.
Now the place is a hockey Field of Dreams, complete with a homemade scoreboard and a restored red barn that makes it look like Vermont.
Here, the kids have it made. Megan brings out a tray with cookies and a thermos of hot chocolate for timeouts. The biggest mishap occurred when her son Teige, 4, got a vanilla wafer stuck inside the wire cage of his helmet and dad had to come to the rescue.
There has been steady growth in backyard rinks, according to NiceRink, an outdoor rink system provider that has more than doubled in size in the last 10 years. One of the reasons is that ponds and lakes are freezing later and thawing sooner, according to NiceRink president Jim Stoller.
The company offers a variety of kits online, ranging in price from $335-$10,000. Ice rinks with refrigeration systems can cost even more.
But with outdoor rinks, it’s not always smooth skating.
Snow followed by rain is the worst, according to Stoller.
“You can’t use a snowblower,’’ he says. “That’s when you call the shovel gang and get lots of beer.’’
Community building Backyard rinks, like swimming pools, seem to appear in clusters, especially in Norfolk, where several are nearly a slap shot away from each other.
John Cournoyer of Norfolk says the toughest part of building a backyard rink is the boards.
“There’s 46 brackets, and each one is handmade,’’ he says.
But his kids sometimes spend eight hours a day outside skating.
“All the kids are here and we know where they are,’’ he says. “They are a bunch of great kids.’’
Kevin Donahue of Norfolk is now in his sixth season with a rink. His two boys love to skate, and he finds it a great stress reliever after work.
The first year, his neighbors thought he was weird.
“They thought, ‘Why is this guy out there in the backyard with a water hose in the middle of December watering his lawn?’ ’’ says Donahue.
Nearby at the Bushway house, Opening Day in December takes priority over school.
“It’s a very important day,’’ says Mike Owen, 15, who plays for King Philip High School.
Pucks start banging the boards before dawn at 5:30. The kids play for a couple of hours. Mike’s father owns a poultry farm and his mother Nancy brings over fresh eggs. Inside, Mary Bushway gets out the frying pan and cooks the bacon and eggs. The kids leave their skates at the back door and the house is soon filled with laughter.
“We drive ’em to school late,’’ says Mary Bushway, laughing. “We write them a note. We don’t lie. We tell them they were skating. What are they going to do to us?’’
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; for more photos, video, and your chance to submit photos of your backyard rink, go to boston.com/sports.