People who tiptoe out of the house after midnight might be up to no good, but during Rochester's cold months a lot of them are just checking their ice. Last year was an excellent season for backyard rink builders, and they are holding out hope for another.
"It's about finding the holy grail of ice," says Tom Viola of Webster. Viola and his "Over 40" men's hockey teammates are sharing a pitcher of beer between games at the 2015 pond hockey tournament at Blue Heron Hills Golf Club when the conversation turns to backyard skating rinks. One player notes that "it's a little bit of art, and a little bit of science." Another adds "and a little bit of luck."
According to these builders, good ice for a homemade rink requires hard work, experience, a level yard, and the right weather. Rink people talk extensively about do-overs; snow before the ice freezes is a mess, and a thaw can be catastrophic. That's why, says Craig Abbott of Victor, "You need to check the 10-day forecast — several times a day."
Carmen DelPlato of Batavia grew up where neighborhood parking lots, tennis courts, and wading pools were flooded every winter to make rinks. "When we were kids, we'd skate outdoors." He adds in disbelief, "I've heard guys say they've never skated outdoors."
Abbott skated on the edges of a shallow creek growing up, but hockey was difficult. "The creek wasn't frozen in the middle so if we lost the puck, the lightest kids would be trying to fish it out of the stream." (Abbott added that the stream was about 12 inches deep and safe.)
Stuart MacKenzie of Brighton is a third-generation rink builder whose grandparents lived well north of the Great Lakes in the 1920's. They built rinks by packing the snow with their feet, and MacKenzie grew up skating in his family's backyard, using the same method.
MacKenzie now builds a rink for his own family — his current rink design is 40 feet by 60 feet with LED lights under the ice, a rink-side fire pit, and strings of Christmas lights above. "Our first rink started with rain on the lawn," he says. "We shoveled snow banks for boards."
Even after 16 years of rink building, MacKenzie remains fascinated. "It's never the same sheet of ice," he explains.
Viola started his first rink by shoveling off a 12-foot-by-12-foot concrete slab and flooding between the snow banks. When his kids started playing hockey he built a wooden frame and lined it with plastic sheeting. As the children grew, Viola added boards, then a puck-catching net behind the boards. Like a lot of rink people, Viola would often go out late at night and check on the ice. "My wife used to call the rink my mistress."
Abbott started on this season's rink in the summer. "My wife wanted a patio" and he took the opportunity to level his backyard. This winter, he'll expand the rink to 32 feet by 44 feet. He says "level is good," but really it's essential.
The first time Viola built a rink, he says, he "didn't have a good appreciation for the pitch in my yard." Now, with a system figured out, and years of experience, Viola and a few helpers could get the rink built in half a day. But building up the ice takes time, and patience. "An amateur mistake is standing on the ice to test it too soon, and breaking through," he says.
Not every season yields good ice. Abbott recalls "one year, we built the rink, and the season was so bad we only skated one weekend. Everyone else in Rochester thought that was a great winter."
Viola remembers the year that a wind storm blew down his boards, and the water drained from his rink. "I told my wife I was going outside to take it down. She looked outside hours later, and I had rebuilt it."
MacKenzie has had children, dogs, and deer fracture his ice by crossing it too early. Viola tells a story of fixing his rink after a thaw that was followed by snowfall. "We carried hot water from the kitchen for two hours to fix the ice." Abbott keeps a photo on his phone of a friend's improvised Zamboni. "It's the carcass of an old push mower, with a keg barrel filled with water that's connected to a PVC pipe."
The number of people in Rochester building their own rinks is hard to estimate, but MacKenzie, who also coaches hockey, says, "In every team I've coached, at least a quarter of the kids have backyard rinks. Apply that to the 2100 kids in the area's hockey programs, and even when you account for siblings, that's a lot of families building rinks."
In addition to the personal satisfaction of building a rink, "the kids can skate whenever they want," MacKenzie says, "and I know where they are." The backyard rink provides significant advantages, especially for young hockey players. "For example," Viola says, "in a game, a kid might touch the puck 10 times; in practice maybe 50. All day long on a backyard rink, it's infinite."
Kids learn social skills on the ice as well, including cooperation and even mediation. "I've seen that dynamic when I've got 30 to 40 kids on my rink, with a bunch playing pickup hockey, and kids figure skating in the middle," MacKenzie says. "They figure it out."
There is a sense of community among rink people, and they know where the rinks are. "I used to steal ideas shamelessly," Viola says. He describes a homeowner out on Route 250 who always has a perfect rink, and whom he's asked for advice. "He's the ice-whisperer."
MacKenzie sees people stop by his home to take photos of his rink, and laughs about having what he calls "jumpers": kids who come over at night, jump out of their cars, skate around for a while and take off.
Eventually, the boards come down. MacKenzie finds that the insulation of the rink creates "a little microclimate, and I get a nice green square in the middle of my lawn." Viola explains that the rink deconstruction makes his yard "look like a shanty town" and warns that taking the rink down too late carries risks.
"I'd find that moles had taken up residence, with 'Caddy Shack'-type trails all over the place ... But when the rink is surrounded by snow banks and Christmas lights, it's our own winter wonderland."