Backyard rinks showcase the art of sport

Dan Falloon

To an outsider, setting up a backyard rink might seem like one of the easiest things in the world.
After all, it’s just litres and litres of frozen water—and easy to find on sidewalks and highways across the country, right?
Technically, ice is ice. But when even the NHL has to bring in a specialist to ensure proper conditions for the chilliest game of its season, the annual Winter Classic on New Year’s Day (at Boston’s Fenway Park this time), then maybe there’s more to making a skateable sheet of ice than simply leaving the hose run overnight.
Former Fort High teacher Norm Guenette is making ice for the first time this year. His granddaughters, Lena Morelli, 13, and Mya Guenette, seven, had asked for the rink to help improve their skating.
“I have one granddaughter and she’s already playing hockey, and she wants to improve,” noted Guenette.
“She wants to do more skating, and the younger one wants to learn to skate . . . so I decided I’ll build them a small rink and see where we go from there.”
Guenette explained he wanted to give the girls the chance to skate in private, as opposed to trying to develop their skills on some of the town’s outdoor rinks popular with kids.
“I want to give them a little bit of freedom, so I thought I’d give them a year of quiet, private skating,” he reasoned.
But the 65-year-old is facing challenges to laying down a pristine, flat sheet behind his Portage Avenue home.
“The ground’s uneven, so it’s difficult to get the first two or three coats of ice down, so I’m struggling a little bit,” admitted Guenette.
“I’ve put boards around [the rink] and watered the corners and the border so that the ice wouldn’t escape,” he noted.
“I froze the contour first to make sure that the water would stay within the rink itself, and now I’m in the process of trying to do the rest.”
Guenette said all that remains is just to blanket the ice with several coats of water to make it thick. He estimates the rink eventually will be about 42’ x 24’.
“I’ll soak the ground a couple more times and just keep soaking the ground until it’s nice and even,” added Guenette, who estimated the sheet should be playable in one-two weeks.
Guenette said he’s building by feel and from what he’s gathered from watching others—not from a book or website.
 “I’ve looked at what they did in the north-end rink,” he remarked. “I’ve skated all my life and I’ve skated on ponds, so I basically want enough water, and I know that if I put on too much, it’ll freeze and crack and won’t be much good, so I’m doing it slowly.
“One step at a time.”
Meanwhile, Len VanUden, 41, also is working on a rink across the back lane from his Third Street West home. VanUden has more experience, though, given he’s been building a rink every winter for at least five years.
“The first year was the learning curve, and after that, I just do the same thing I do all the time,” he noted. “You definitely refine the process.
“I haven’t really changed much from the start, but the learning curve is greatly reduced,” he said.
VanUden took the same collaborative approach as Guenette, getting his information from friends and neighbours.
“You talk to people and you ask ‘what do you do,’ and some people, they’ll do this and other people will do that, and it basically just comes down to throwing water on the ground,” he said.
“The biggest thing is the first year the ground was unlevel, and that’s not a good thing. You have to contain that water.
“The first year, we started kind of late,” VanUden admitted. “We weren’t gonna do it, weren’t gonna do it, then [said], ‘Ah, we’ll just try it’ and we’ll just see what happens basically, and it didn’t turn out too bad.
“It was a lot of screwing around because of the unlevel ground but once we got that figured out, it wasn’t too bad.”
As the years have gone by, the rink has improved. VanUden even has developed his own technology over the years in the form of a mini-Zamboni.
He strapped a 45-gallon barrel onto a metal garden cart, and drilled holes in PVC piping while letting a towel drag behind to even out the flood.
“I’ll go out there and hot flood it, and it just ends up just like IFK [Ice For Kids Arena],” said VanUden. “That’s what I joke about. I’ll say I have indoor ice outside.
“It only takes two to three rounds of hot water a night.
“I work at the mill, so I’ll just bring a tote with me in the truck to work at the end of my shift, and I’ll fill it up with hot water from the mill.
“Once we start hot flooding, it seals the ice, makes it hard, and fills in all these little gaps until it’s absolutely table-top flat and then away we go.
“After that, it’s simple.”
What also has helped the rink come together is some generosity. After the first year, VanUden had a friend use an excavator to flatten the land to make the process smoother in the second year.
That friend worked for half the normal cost, and three of the four businesses where VanUden shopped for supplies also provided some sort of contribution to the rink.
“It wasn’t like I was asking for anything. It was just in conversation, ‘Oh, what are you doing with 50 sheets of plywood?’” VanUden recalled.
“And I said, ‘Well, I’m making a rink for the kids.’ [They’d say], ‘Hey, well, we’ll give you 20 percent off’, or whatever.
“That just goes to show the support this community has for minor hockey, or just for outdoor recreation for kids in general,” he noted.
VanUden said his oldest son, Brady, 14, started hockey relatively late, and used the rink to bring his skills in line with some of the more experienced players on the team.
“He just got in his mind that he wanted to play hockey, so that’s why I started to build ice for him,” said VanUden.
“He was a little bit behind some of the other kids because they’ve been skating for three or four years already, some of these kids, so that was the intent initially was to get him up to speed.
“But as we got into the rink-building process, his younger brother [11-year-old Tyler] started to play, and friends come over, and pretty soon it wasn’t about our boys any more. It was about them and their friends.
“And then in the summer, we go to friends’ houses who have pools,” laughed VanUden. “So they get to return the favour.”
VanUden said while his rink has hosted some legendary games of shinny, it also has seen plenty of focus on the X’s and O’s of the game as he and his boys will go out to work on the fundamentals.
“The younger one, that’s his passion, so he’ll be out there and he’ll work on something for hours,” he noted.
“So say he’s having trouble getting a rebound off the boards or something, we’ll go out there. It’s perfect for development.”
VanUden said he easily can put eight hours at a time into working on the rink—and still knows why he’s doing it.
“Once it’s all done, it’s kind of gratifying,” he noted. “And the boys use it. I’ve never had to ask them to go out there, they just go out there.”
“It’s all for them, and the little buggers they probably still won’t visit me when I’m old,” VanUden kidded.
“[Hopefully] they’ll remember it when they get older.”