April 6, 2014

The Hockey Mom: In a wintry backyard, a miracle evolves, endures

By April Bowling

There is a much-beloved hockey institution in our town. It is the location of the town’s New Year’s Eve party. Next to Santa it is my kids’ most eagerly awaited winter arrival.

It is known simply as the “Roundy Rink,” named for its host family, the hardy souls who raise the boards, level the ground, stock the shed, shovel the snow and string the lights (although not necessarily in that order).

Patty and Brent started erecting it 12 years ago and have done it every year since. They have a strict access policy — anyone can skate at any time — even though that required them to obtain a special insurance rider. The Roundy Rink is the real deal — full boards, great ice, good lighting.

I might love the idea of the Roundy Rink even more than Sam loves the real thing. The idea that kids who might otherwise never be exposed to hockey, or even skating, have free ice and a shed full of yard-sale skates to choose from warms me to the core.

In a day and age where parents are afraid to let their kids walk down the street alone, pond hockey pickup games don’t happen like I wish they would. By contrast, no one can protest their kids mobbing a rink in the middle of town only a few lots down from the police station.

But watching the work that Brent and Patty put into it each year made me think.

Like all civic institutions, neighborhood rinks are a labor of love, born mostly by a few dedicated folks who are willing to sacrifice personally for the community good. OK, maybe most people get started just for their kids’ skating careers, but it quickly becomes more than that.

Clearly I have rink envy, but since our house is built into a steep hill, we will never have one. So when I decided to write on this topic, I contacted friends who have rinks, and some who had. The latter group was decidedly melancholy about their decision to discontinue their rinks, no matter how impractical they had become.

In fact, my friend Jeff, whose rink gave way and a forced a late-night call to his local DPW after the leaking water began to form black ice on a state highway, fondly recalled spending long nights resurfacing and shoveling by himself in the night air. He ended his email to me with a plea for a return to pond hockey, since threatening the public safety with another rink at his location is not an option.

But it was the response I got from Stephanie Graber that I had to share with readers. Now a Squirt, her son had spent a season on Sam’s Mite crossice team a couple years ago. Instead of answering my questions about motivation and cost and liability, she summed up beautifully what the neighborhood rink speaks to in all of us parents. The reasons why moms shovel ice, dads search for the perfect liners,and neighbors donate outgrown equipment.

Stephanie, I dedicate the remainder of my column to your account. Thank you for it: n n n The grass did not die. In fact, there was more life in our backyard that first winter we created a rink than ever before.

Neither Brian nor I grew up in hockey families, but when our son, Harlan, fell in love with skating, we went with it. “I’m just going to sign him up for this learn-to-skate program and we will see if he likes it,” Brian said. We have not looked back since. The passion that our son and others on his team have for skating at such a young age is like nothing that you will see for other sports.

I’m not sure what it is, other than amazing, and exactly what you would wish for your young child surrounded by a world of tempting electronics and sedentary activities.

We were committed to fostering our son’s love for hockey. Brian was committed to our rink the first year. I’m from New Jersey. I had never before seen a backyard rink. I certainly did not know what to expect and I’ll be honest, I was not much help. Brian spent countless hours consulting blogs and had scratch paper all over the house with formulas detailing how high the boards along our less than level yard needed to be, followed by how large the liner needed to be and how many gallons of water we would need to fill it. We were on a tight budget. Everything was calculated so we would know exactly what this investment was going to be.

Little did we know that the ROI on this rink would be one million times what we ever had imagined. Quality family time, social time, quiet time, skill-perfecting opportunities, early morning and late night skate sessions, kids only, adults only. This rink welcomes experienced skaters and new skaters too. For beginners, it’s like having a karaoke machine in your bedroom (you know you all want that opportunity without the social humiliation).

For the budding NHL players, a skill can be repeated over and over again until perfection prevails.

Our backyard setup has evolved, now in our third season, with lights suspended from posts and the trees in all four corners.

It’s taken over an entire 50x70 piece of our yard, which this year we had leveled by our landscaper to avoid the deepwater corners that took longer to freeze.

Beside the rink is an amazing warming hut built by Brian using the supports of the adjacent swing set. It is warmed by a space heater and adorned by Christmas lights. Miraculously you can smell the cedar above the sweet stench of hockey equipment. Yard sale finds have created our expansive inventory of sticks and skates and helmets for those new to skating who need to borrow some equipment.

Now, we are in this together. We shovel as a family and we skate as a family.

Our daughter, Madeleine, now dresses in full hockey gear with her hockey skates and has her pink lefty stick. She has interest in hitting the ice with a team for next season and we are thrilled.

While lying in bed one early morning late in the season last year when other backyard rinks were melting and ours was still frozen, Brian turned to me and said, “I think we have built a miracle back there.” We laughed. Each winter our rink does eventually melt, but the memories from each season last forever.

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

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