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 mpols@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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.

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.

PRIVATIZED RESPONSE

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.

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