Last year, in the service of his backyard rink, Mike Topchik brought in the trucks. “You know the big highway dump trucks?” he said. “Twenty loads of fill. We’ve got a nice level surface now.”
His rink in Scarborough measures 40 by 65 feet. Just medium sized, he said. For the time being. “I still have more trees to come out,” he said. “It will run 100 feet by the time we’re done.”
This “winter garden” of his is just one of many in Maine, all watched over by fiercely-focused farmers looking for a yield in goals scored, the sense of community and the undeniable pleasure of being the family with the rink everyone talks about.
Every backyard rink tells a story. The common thread in the narrative is the willingness to put in countless hours (and what can amount to a hundreds if not thousands of dollars) to be that lonely, hopeful fool out there in the middle of the cold night spraying down a slab of ice. The drama comes from the external force of winter, which tantalizes and taunts in equal measure as the smooth surfaces of cold snaps give unexpected way to slush, the way they did last weekend.
“That’s just part of the game,” said John Lemieux, whose 28-by-60-foot rink in Topsham features fencing, lights and a surface groomed by an improvised $20 contraption fondly known as the Zamboni rake. “It’s OK. It will happen more than once this winter.”
It’s the motivations that vary. These rink masters of Maine might be making up for a childhood hockey career that went south without enough rink time or trying to replicate a magical memory of youth. Some of them are fighting off the winter blues. Very often the rink obsession begins because they’re trying to make great hockey players out of small children. Kids on a backyard rink gets far more “puck touches” than a kid at a real game or an hour-long practice. They also learn to turn on a dime in those smaller spaces. That makes a difference in skill level. Witness Lemieux’s daughter Lainie, age 10 and already playing on a top tier Squirt travel team and two different middle school teams.
At minimum, the rink masters are giving their children, and the neighborhood children, an alternative to electronics. They’re also giving themselves a creative outlet that enables them to be outside, in the winter, studying the weather. As Topchik put it: “You get super-zeroed in on your ice.” Tending the rink is the one crazy thing he does that his wife actually approves of, he said.
THE RINK OBSESSION
Once the obsession starts, it’s hard to step away. The first rule of Backyard Rink Club is you do not stop talking – and thinking – about ways to make your rink bigger, better, smoother.
Even 10 years into the rink game, Mark Roop is still revising. The sun shield he came up with a couple of years ago to keep his 56-by-36-foot rink in Kennebunk going as long into spring as possible started out hung on ropes; now it’s made the jump to cables.
Durham’s Chris Logan and Bob Phelan groom their shared rink on Phelan’s property (with full, rounded boards) with an old tractor that has been converted into a mini-Zamboni. But they’re not done improving either.
Gibson Fay-Leblanc, in his fourth year of rink making, has hit the expansionist stage. That means he’s starting to think dark thoughts about inconvenient trees. He looks up at the bare branches of his pear tree and reflects that if the tree were gone, he could expand the 40-by-20-foot rink. After all, both his sons, Liam, 8, and Emmett, 5, play youth hockey, and while this year’s rink is the best he’s ever made, thanks to $300 worth of assorted improvements, next year’s could be better. “It’s like a gateway,” Fay-Leblanc said.
The big improvements to Fay-Leblanc’s 2013-14 rink are brackets that go into the ground and form slots to slide plywood boards into. They’re one of the products made by NiceRink, a Wisconsin company started by a former U.S. Hockey League player named Jim Stoller (he played for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in 1987). Stoller’s family had been in the flexible plastic business since the 1940s, but NiceRink was his idea, born of his frustration with trying to make his own backyard rink in 1991.
He used to know every customer by name. Now he has a full sales staff and kits for sale everywhere from Costco in Canada to Target in the United States.
“It becomes a passion,” Stoller said.
Portland restaurateur Steve Corry, who owns 555 and Petite Jacqueline with his wife, describes his first attempt at a rink in his Scarborough backyard this year as “a bit of a humbling experience.” First there was the business of trying to create right angles, which brought him back to his 10th-grade geometry class in South Boston, where he also learned to love hockey. Then there was that rude awakening as to how level the lawn isn’t and how much water it takes to fill. “I started filling it at 3:30 in the afternoon,” Corry said. “I shut off the water at 3 in the morning. Just so I could get 4 inches on one corner and 16 inches on the other.”
By mid-December he had spent about 90 minutes skating and a solid work week building and maintaining. (His two little boys, 6 and 4, were getting plenty of ice time though). This kind of skewed ratio of labor to fun is commonplace. Lemieux estimates he puts in 120 hours on the rink every season.
“A lot of us dads are just gluttons for punishment,” he said, in a tone that was more gleeful than rueful.
The second rule of Backyard Rink Club is, it is fun, if only on a level not everyone gets.
The third rule is don’t brag; let others do it for you. Brunswick’s David Israel was modest about his rink, even with its rounded boards and Bruins logos, and praised Lemieux’s as a genuinely serious rink. Lemieux in turn said his was nothing compared to Logan and Phelan’s in Durham.
A generation ago, not many Mainers ventured out with a hose to tend their backyard winter gardens. Lemieux grew up in Lewiston-Auburn, where the Catholic parishes used to maintain their own outdoor rinks. But that era is over and municipal rinks aren’t all that easy to find. The privatized response represented by serious backyard rinks – the kinds with rounded boards and logos, like David Israel’s in Brunswick – is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Chris Ledwick is taking a semi-old-fashioned approach with what he is jokingly calling his “organic rink” in downtown Brunswick. “I am relying on natural precipitation to fill it,” he said. This approach made him the rare parent who wasn’t glum about the recent weather. “I am hoping to do as little work as possible,” he said.
Given Ledwick’s past hockey history – he played at Bowdoin College and worked as an assistant coach for the men’s team after graduation – and the fact that he has two children of hockey age (5 and 7) you’d think he might be a future obsessive. He claims he’ll stop after one year if it doesn’t go well. He’s only caved to the peer pressure of other hockey parents on one matter: “I had to do a liner or I wasn’t playing varsity,” he said.
“Varsity” would describe Geoff Perham, who doesn’t just shine a few floodlights on his rink in Brunswick; he strings them overhead. Perham grew up with the tradition of backyard rinks in central New York, where his mother was an early rink master. “She never used plastic,” he said. “She would just mist the snow until there was a crust and go from there.”
But it doesn’t take skating from toddlerhood to make a person succumb to rink making with a vengeance. Philadelphia native Hughes Kraft said he didn’t really know how to skate until he moved to Maine 20 years ago. But after 13 years in the backyard rink business he’s earned the honorific “rink master” from his neighbors in Cape Elizabeth, who share in both the rewards and the responsibilities of maintaining his 30-by-70-foot rink (with fire pit and a bench made of old hockey sticks).
Every November his neighbors show up with screw guns and various pieces of the rink they’ve been storing under their porches for a build day.
Among the community’s shared rituals is the annual bagging up of ice from the melting rink as spring approaches, which is then stashed in the freezer to pay the ice forward for the next year.
“It’s really bigger than my family,” Kraft said. “I am just the conduit.”
He’s rigged the outside lights so that neighbors can help themselves if he’s not home. Or if he’s gone to bed.
“I have looked out my window at midnight and there’s a dad out there, working off steam,” he said. “The rink serves a purpose beyond skating. It’s a blessing.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: