At home on the ice

Decorated with floodlights and smoothed by “homebonis”, Minnesota’s coolest rinks cultivate winter camaraderie.

About 10 miles from Bemidji, Minnesota’s most iconic rink – smooth as glass, surrounded by towering pines, once featured in the pages of Sports Illustrated – is a hockey player’s paradise.

The 120-by-65-foot oval, two-thirds the size of what the NHL skates on, is bounded by boards from the former state field of Bemidji, home of many national champions.

Every winter for 20 years, Bryan Hammitt, a local high school teacher, has taken on what amounts to a part-time job of packing snow and dumping nearly 20,000 gallons of water on frozen ground.

“It’s a huge amount of work,” he admits.

But on a cold winter’s night, when the spotlights come on, shining like rapture, even the stiffest-legged, wobbly-ankled skater among us can experience the sense of longing and destiny, of possibility and of pride that Hammitt Rink evokes. No wonder it’s called the Hockey Field of Dreams.

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Minnesota is the state of hockey, producing more Division I and NHL players than any other. It is also home to the highest number of rinks per capita, and while no one keeps statistics, it may also have the highest rate of backyard rinks.

The pandemic has prompted even more fanatics to create their own sheets, noted Grand Rapids photographer Matthew Jasper, whose coffee table book “Home Ice” positioned him as the state’s rink documentarian.

“When you get to California, you look down and see everybody’s backyards with the pools,” Jasper said. “If you fly to Minnesota, you look down and everyone has a rink in their backyard now. It blows up.”

These rink builders — especially those with luxury setups — spend long, frozen nights melting and chipping ice bumps, filling cracks, and standing upright with a garden hose. They dream of the Zambonis that their spouses won’t let them buy and will settle for “homebonis” that they fetch from hardware stores.

That’s because good ice is the love language of rink builders: a way to share their passion for the sport with families, friends and neighbors, and to cultivate a sense of community.

For Bill Traff, the huge Olympic-sized ice rink in his Long Lake, Minn., is home to families who live nearby, youth hockey teams and even curious police officers patrolling the area. Neighbors donate power for floodlights and gather around ice-side bonfires. The rink’s ability to create camaraderie during the hibernation season sealed the deal for a recent buyer nearby.

“Strangely, I see more of my neighbors during the winter,” Traff said, above the sound of sticks scraping the ice and pucks hitting the boards.

romance and reality

Indoor ice time was scarce and expensive even before the pandemic temporarily closed arenas. Outdoor municipal and backyard rinks make skating much more accessible. And their casual pickup games cultivate a freer style of hockey, Jasper explained, compared to the regimented drills of an arena team practice.

“It’s organic,” he said of the outdoor game. “You go there to cultivate your skills or just to have a good night under the lights.”

These days, home rink builders of all persuasions often turn to the internet for inspiration and advice. John Greco, co-founder of Facebook group Backyard Ice Rinks, describes the mentality of hardcore hockey dads who make up the majority of its nearly 30,000 members.

“Growing up you loved playing hockey and you thought it would be great to have your own rink,” he said. “Fast forward 20 years, and now you have your own home and it’s time to make the dream come true.”

Backyard rinks range from tiny to huge, short-lived to long-lasting. Duluth’s famous hockey family, the Frybergers, is known for having one of the oldest rinks, which has also hosted several Olympians. Bob Sr. began flooding the backyard in 1943, before moving the rink to adjacent vacant land and inspiring two subsequent generations to maintain the family ice.

There is a wide range of materials and methods for making rinks, including DIY wood bundles and kits with plastic liners, stands, and sideboards, which typically range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Some home rinks are on grass; others cover lakes or ponds; and a few, like the one owned by Amy and Deon Wolff, are made of concrete. The former owner of their sprawling Lakeville property, former Twins player Glen Perkins, converted a shed into a small ice rink. It is used several times a week by the Wolffs’ youngest child, 12-year-old Dillon, and his hockey-playing friends.

For Deon Wolff, making smooth ice is a pride. He recently upgraded his portable, blemish-melting propane torch to a modernized roofer’s stand, so he can roll multiple torches at once.

Rink makers are famous for their homemade resurfacing contraptions, from PVC pipes and towels hauled behind buckets to tanks carried on modified golf carts. Traff hooks three snowblowers together to clean his rink and invests in a military-grade water heater to make fresh ice layers sturdier.

But all home rinks share some universals: the sun and hot temperatures are enemies; shoveling after skating is a necessity and nighttime flooding is a mystical state.

“When you’re out there at 10 a.m. and it’s dark and the wind is calm, you can hear everything from miles away,” Greco said. “Then when you’re done, you look at that perfect morning sheet and you’re like, ‘This is awesome.'”

“People who do it love the ritual,” Jasper said of the process of making the rink. “But the romance and reality of the backyard rink are sometimes very far apart,” he warned.

Greco echoed the sentiment. “You have to be ready to work,” he advised. “It’s not just like, build it and they will come. It’s build it – hold it – and they will come.”

Pond Hockey

Forest Lake’s Jesse Turnbull spent much of his youth strapping his skates into his hockey stick and walking to an outdoor rink; one of the highlights of his high school years was playing in the state hockey tournament.

Hoping to pass on the experience to his three young children, Turnbull has been building a skating rink on the lake outside his home since 2017. He uses an ice auger to drill holes for the poles. Then he installs boards, painted with the Forest Lake Rangers logo. Then it pumps water from the lake through a hole in the ice to form the Ranger Rink and a surrounding skating oval.

Rink accessories include a fire pit, warming hut and skate sharpener. For maintenance, Turnbull invested in an electric broom, an ice shaver and a small resurfacing machine called the Bambini. And, yes, he relies on a storage unit for all his rink supplies because there’s no way they’ll fit in the garage.

“The truck is already outside because of other hockey equipment inside,” he noted.

The windows of Turnbull’s house are outside the reach of missed pucks, but there are other dangers on the rink. Last year an unexpected warm front softened the ice and a few boards sank. (Wearing waders, Turnbull and a neighbor fished them out.)

Due to the lake, Ranger Rink is prone to ice cracks, which Turnbull fills with a bucket of slush and a hockey puck (“going old school,” he said of the method).

“Sometimes I think, ‘What am I doing?'” he admitted. “But I have so much time that I say, ‘That’s what we’re doing, because we’re going to skate today. “”

Despite all the work, Turnbull said he finds the process of making the rink “somewhat therapeutic” and appreciates the benefits it has brought to his family.

“It was kind of nice to show the kids that if you want to do something, you can get in there and you can do it,” he said. “I don’t know who’s having more fun with it, me or them.”

Tournament Host

Drew Peterson’s rink in front of his Baxter home started years ago with 2-by-4s and a plastic tarp. Today it’s a 100 x 70 sheet with LED lights and billboards for local businesses – which the low-key dad describes as “pretty extravagant for the garden”.

In 2018, after Peterson’s stepson Jake Haapajoki, a popular athlete, committed suicide at age 16, the family began hosting a 3-on-3 hockey tournament to raise scholarship funds through the through their foundation, Smiles for Jake.

The event drew up to 60 teams, from as far away as the Twin Cities and North Dakota. A few thousand spectators show up to watch.

“It’s really fun,” Peterson said. “A lot of good stories are told. There are lots of laughs. And there is very good hockey. Hosting so many skaters – including Jake’s best friends – has helped the family recover from their devastating loss. “It’s a continuous memory maker when you thought the memories were over,” Peterson said.

For the rest of the season, Peterson estimates the rink attracts 100 skaters a week, including home team practices. Professional gamblers in the area are known to drop by and offer advice. He started getting so many skating requests from his network that he couldn’t answer all the calls and texts.

“The rule is: if the lights are on, the rink is open, don’t even ask,” he explained.

This approach can have its downsides – “I might come home from work and I can’t park in my driveway or get into my house because there might be 30 or 40 vehicles parked,” he laughs.

But the family has embraced the rink’s popularity.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but I love that he gets used to it, and I’d be disappointed if he didn’t,” Peterson said.

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