The tradition of playing hockey outside atop frozen ponds is a part of the fabric of the game, and the foundation for the NHL's wildly popular Winter Classic. This season's annual outdoor match takes place Jan. 1, 2015, at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., pitting the city's hometown Capitals against the venerable Chicago Blackhawks.
But the lore of playing on homemade slabs of ice built by nostalgic hockey dads stretches back well beyond the Winter Classic. The legendary Wayne Gretzky grew up playing on a rink built by his father, Walter, and the craft remains popular among DIY parents across the northern part of the United States and throughout hockey-mad outposts in Canada.
"It's like any backyard rink," says Dan Craig, the NHL's senior director of facilities operations and the man in charge of building the Winter Classic rinks since the first event in 2008. "The basics are the same. You are always dealing with the sun and a lot of people don't have the time or the patience to build a backyard rink."
Ultimately, the process of building your own rink is simple: Set up boards around the desired skating surface, flood the area with water, wait for it to freeze, and lace 'em up. This winter, with the following expert advice, you can start your own tradition and build the backyard rink you’ve always dreamed about. Here’s how:
Identify where to build. It's a good idea to find the flattest part of the backyard to avoid building a lopsided surface or one where the boards are uneven. Just like real estate, location is paramount. "Try to build it in the shade," Craig says. "If you have a shady part of your yard, try to put it there because it will save your ice."
Decide how big you want the rink to be and mark off the area. This is also the guide for where your boards will stand. "Once you know your rink size, at the end of the day, you are just retaining water," according to Mike Miller, owner of D1 Backyard Rinks in Minnesota. "You can go to the local hardware store to build wooden boards, or you can go higher end with arena-style boards."
Imagine you are building a shallow above-ground pool. It’s the same when you're erecting a backyard rink. A liner acts as a container for your water and holds it in place while it freezes. Miller recommends using a large sheet of plastic, which typically comes in a roll. Draping the plastic over the boards creates a vessel to fill with water. One major mistake home rink builders make is by trying to get too fancy and drawing lines under the playing surface, like on an NHL rink. "Don’t try to put hockey markings in because, when the sun comes out, that will be the first soft spot that you have," warns Craig. "You’ll be tripping over the blue line."
This can be done one of two ways: Either you can gradually fill the rink surface with small amounts of water, creating a layering effect as it freezes over time (this is how Craig built his own backyard rinks back home in Alberta), or, as Miller recommends, you can flood the whole thing all at once and let Mother Nature do her job.
Depending on how cold it is, you could be waiting a long time for the ice to freeze hard enough to skate on. "We’re here in Minnesota, so it's always really cold," Miller says. "But if you’re out East, it might take a while longer than eight or 10 hours. The bottom line is it's a labor of love." As you might imagine, Craig, the NHL's ice man, was a perfectionist when it came to his own backyard rinks. "I would use just a fine spray and it would take a week to build it the way I wanted it built before anyone was able to skate on it."
Getting your rink to the point where it’s ready to skate on is only half the battle. You'll need to maintain your sheet all winter, resurfacing the ice to fill in gashes made by skate blades and the melting effect of warmer days. Not many of us have our own Zamboni, so repairing the ice will have to be done by hand. "Keep it clear of snow," Miller says. "I take a garden hose and water the ice like you’d water your flowers."
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