December 26, 2013

Maine rink masters work winter backyard magic

They pour time, money and passion into the pursuit of creating the perfect skating place.

By Mary Pols
Staff Writer

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.”

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Lauren Topchik helps her cousin Kolby Wohl select a hockey stick during a Christmas Eve skate on the rink that Mike Topchick built in his family’s backyard in Scarborough.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Gibson Fay-Leblanc and his son Liam enjoy the skating rink that Fay-Leblanc built in the backyard of his Portland home for his two sons.

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.


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.

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