Raising Rippers

Making ice.     Photo: Elizabeth Eilers Sullivan

Ice, Ice Baby: Building the Perfect Backyard Skating Rink, Minnesota Style

In Minnesota, where hockey rules, ice is a winter crop

“I think we should have the pool truck flood the rink,” I told Peter, my husband, in late December.

“No way!” He looked at me with disbelief.

“Really, you haven’t started on it, and it’s after Christmas.”

In Minnesota, December is late to not have begun flooding your backyard rink. The boards have been set up since early November, when it was so unseasonably warm out that we wondered if it would ever get cold enough to flood.

Minnesota, the state of hockey—boot hockey, broom ball, floor hockey, shinny, and, of course, ice hockey. A place where the temperature regularly dips below zero (not including wind-chill); where people commute to work all year round by bike no matter the snowy conditions; and where children learn to crawl, walk, skate, and then run. It’s no wonder backyard rinks thrive. Ice is Minnesota’s winter crop. We grow rinks. We water them. We tend to them. We light them by night for evening skates and check them in the morning to assess their condition. We watch the temperature and try to predict how a seven-day forecast will affect their skatability, much like farmers watch for rain.

Minnesota, where people look at real estate differently: How big a rink will this yard hold? And if not a large yard, Where can I squeeze a rink in? The state that brought you many of the players for the 1980 Olympic team highlighted in the film Miracle. Yes, the wise Coach Herb Brooks is right: “Great moments, come from great opportunities....” And sometimes that opportunity is taking advantage of the harsh winter climate to make ice.

This is our second year of flooding our backyard, which makes us very green. It started on a whim. We should make a rink. My nephews, now in college, always built a backyard rink at their Saint Paul house a mile away. My brother-in-law, Pat Williams, lovingly slaved over “making ice,” working the hand held ice resurfacer—a.k.a. the hand Zamboni—to paint his ice stroke after stroke.

Last winter, I made the off-handed comment to Pat, “We're thinking of flooding our backyard.” Our lot in the Tangletown neighborhood of St. Paul is prime skating territory: a long, flat rectangle, bordered on both sides by fences, easily holds a 25' x 50' rink. Pat is an attorney by day, backyard rink extraordinaire by night. He told me: “My partner, Mark, is looking to get rid of his rink stuff. I bet he would give it to you if you take it all. His boys are at away at Boston College. He will love you guys.”

Considering that the typical cost of buying DIY rink supplies new from a local shop like NiceRink is about $2,000, we were psyched for the hand-me-downs. One phone call later, we were the proud owners of ALL OF MARK’S STUFF! We became the rink’s fourth owners—the boards and supplies originated with Tom Vanelli, a Minnesota Gopher hockey legend coached by none other than Herb Brooks. We rented a U-Haul and cleared out his treasure and his junk: 2’ x 8’ boards, mats, rebar stakes to hold the boards, 6mm tarp. Then Mark came over with his drill to teach Peter how to lay out the rink.

There are two commonly employed methods for making a backyard rink. Both require that you rake your lawn clear of leaves, mow it low to create a nice flat spot for the rink. Then you lay a “6mil”—that’s six-millimeter polyurethane liner, in rink lingo—and frame the rink with 2’ x 8’ boards, using rebar stakes to hold the boards in place. (If you're worried about your kids impaling themselves on the stakes, try granite cobblestones like Peter did. NiceRink also sells a handy bracket we may try next year; luckily, they have a Fourth of July sale). Do all this before the first freeze.

The first approach is called the “pool-it-and-let-it-freeze-method,” which Pat used for 23 years. This method requires you to loop the liner over the frame of the boards instead of under. Then you flood it with as much water as you can, making a wading pool in your backyard, and wait for it to freeze.

The second method, preferred by Mark, is “the slow freeze.” First you watch the weather for the first two to four inches of snow that will stick. The night before it snows, you lay your 6mil down and pull it underneath your boards to catch the snowfall. (According to Mark, underneath gives you the “pure sound of the puck popping off of the wood boards. This is the best sound on a cold winter’s night.”) Pack the snow down against the boards where the liner meets them, and flood the snow with as little water as you can to make a slush base. Let this freeze. Then begin painting layer after layer onto your ice with a hose over the next few weeks.

Of course, Pat and Mark—both lawyers, both rink makers of more than 15 years, with seven skaters between them—insist that their method is the best. Pat likes hot water; Mark cold. Pat uses high boards; Mark low. Both agree that the hand-held Zamboni is paramount for shellacking the ice into a smooth surface and that each had the best backyard rink in the Twin Cities. Peter, who loves them both, just shook his head and laughingly remarked, “Too many lawyers in my rink!”

Flooding is an art unto itself. Zero to 15 degrees and windy is optimum ice-making weather; any colder, and the water creates long, lazy cracks that you will later have to repair. It usually takes about six to seven flooding sessions of two to three hours each to make ice that is smooth enough to skate on; you cannot walk or skate on the rink before it’s finished because you will break the ice. If the weather doesn’t cooperate between sessions, you will lose your ice and have to start over again. A wet snowfall can damage the surface, as can skates over time. Ice chunks build up, and you need to re-flood it.

Of course, some people skip this whole process and just call the pool trucks in to dump up to 5,000 gallons of chlorinated water in 20 minutes; according to them, the fast flow of the delivery allows for it to freeze into smooth ice. I suspect both Peter and Mark would abhor this approach.

Last year, when Mark expected the weather to be below 15 degrees, he would text Peter: “Tonight is a good night to flood. I can feel it in my knee.”

Prime icing time is from 10 p.m. until midnight, and some nights Pat would drive over and join Peter. Making ice can transport a person into a Zen state. Sometimes even a state of falling asleep at midnight while wearing Carhartts and spraying water from two 50-foot connected vinyl hoses. When flooding is over for the night, the hoses need to be wrapped quickly or they will freeze, and then the hoses come inside to be coiled in our basement like pet snakes, until the next ice-making night.

While we got a late start on ice making this year, eventually we caught up. Peter stubbornly refused to call the pool truck and flooded by hand instead, going out many nights after dinner to run the hoses. One time, he dozed off standing up. “It was weird. I kinda forgot where I was,” he told me when he came inside around 3 a.m. “I lose track of time when I am out there. I feel like I could always go 10 more minutes.”

Sometimes, before bed, our four boys pile out and take turns flooding, walking boards like balance beams to stay out of the way of the water while they wait their turn with the hose. And if there has been a fresh snowfall, the boys stomp down the snow to pack it, which makes a better foundation for making the next layer of ice. (Mark told us to "load the boys on a toboggan and pack it down that way to save steps.") Our golden retriever, Henry, does his part, too: guarding Peter in his late-night sessions, trotting beside him on high alert, ears perked and ready to puff up to any real or imagined threat—but eventually even Henry’s paws get cold and he comes in.

Once, surveying our half-flooded rink, our neighbor Bill commented: “It is funny, or counterintuitive, but after Winter Solstice passes seems like the best time to flood. Once it starts to get warmer, more daylight, the conditions for making ice seem to get better.” The observation seemed to imply Peter was slacking, but I brushed it off. After all, Bill’s is a family that spent Christmas night talking ice rinks, and only ice rinks. “We weren’t permitted to speak of anything else,” admitted his wife, Sarah.

By mid-January, we had the beginnings of a promising rink, but there were still rough ridges, so one morning Peter resorted to slowly dumping buckets of hot water along the ice to smooth them out. I noted the technique dubiously, but Peter insisted the hot water would smooth out the bumpy ice, and then proceeded to carry out 10 three-gallon buckets throughout the morning, filling them at the kitchen sink and sloshing them to the backyard. If it were spring, his trail of water would have sprouted plants. I suggested the hand Zamboni. He replied, without hesitation, “I hate that thing.”

The next morning, when our carbon monoxide detectors went off and we called the fire department to scope it out, the firefighters saw the backyard rink and said, “Now that’s a rink!” I tried to convince them to use their hose on it, to finish off the flooding in one fell swoop, and we all laughed. But I was serious. They were better than a pool truck. “Then you can come back and skate,” I offered hopefully. I think they were tempted.

Back in his ice-making prime, Mark, too, entertained ways to get the fire department into his backyard. “When I was a rookie, I thought, ‘I need to pour as much water on the rink as I can.’ I’d get kinda fuzzy in the brain being out back so long laying ice and wonder how I could expedite this,” he confessed. “But in the end Mother Nature always wins—it is either too cold or too hot, so the process of making ice really relies on your patience and your flexibility.” (It is not only Mother Nature the ice-maker contends with; there is also the ice-widow, who watches from the window, which is why ice making happens after the dinner dishes are done and the kids are tucked in bed.)

Now finally, we have ice—a huge expanse of smooth, clear ice. For Valentine's Day, we hosted a broom ball party and had adults on the ice all night long. Our boys are out there almost daily, learning to skate. Pushing each other in Adirondack chairs in skate races. Wearing boots to play boot hockey. Inviting friends over to play ice hockey. Piling on snowsuits and, with a running start, flinging themselves onto their bellies and tobogganing like penguins. Even Henry has learned to paw skate, chasing pucks and tennis balls as they fly from stick to stick. Remember those old infant Excersaucers? Great for pushing toddlers and babies around on the ice.

Despite our obsession with ice, we’re the minority in Minnesota. Our boys do not play hockey for a team. But we do make ice. We do skate. We play pick-up, as a family, though poorly. Sometimes I wonder if I have done them a disservice in this, the great state of hockey. My three-year-old is already dropping hints that he wants to play hockey next year. I think I hear that pool truck coming.

Until then, in the words of Coach Brooks: "Tonight we skate!"

Elizabeth Eilers Sullivan is a frequent contributor to Raising Rippers. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and four sons.

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