Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rink Dreams

Ever since I was a kid I wanted my own place to skate. Growing up, we were fortunate enough to live close to a couple of lakes as well as skating rink maintained by the local municipality. Every so often the weather would cooperate just right and we'd get to skate on the lakes before they received any significant snowfall. While this wasn't exactly optimal for hockey--no boards meant a lot of chasing the puck--it was great fun to skate freely in an area only limited by the size of the lake (which in the case of one of the local lakes was immense). On those rare occasions when we could, we would spend hour after hour zipping across the frozen lake reasonably confident that the ice would bear our weight despite the occasional cracking and groaning.

The city run rink was a better bet. Most years, they started flooding in December and would keep the warming house open until mid-February. We would slide our skates over our sticks, hoist it up on our shoulders like a bindle stick, and trudge a quarter-mile down the railroad tracks to the city hall where the rink was located. Sometimes we would leave early in the morning and bring a lunch knowing that we would be there for the most of the day. When we weren't playing hockey, we might be battling to be King of the Hill on the mountains of snow around the rink, messing around with the cast of other kids who haunted the warming house, or going over to the pop machine outside the police station under the city hall to buy a Tahitian Treat or a Sun Drop for a quarter. There's no shortage of fond memories from those days.

But as much fun as the local rink could be, there were also downsides. The warming house wasn't open 24/7 and if the weather was bad--below zero temp or greater than minus twenty wind chill as I recall--they would shut it down. Sometimes, even if the ice was good there would be a group that wanted to play boot hockey. Sacrilege! Once the ice is shot or covered by snow boots is fine. But if it's decently skateable, you gotta play real hockey and skate. And the quality of that outdoor ice did indeed vary.

One lesson that I learned as a yooth and have relearned many a time as a mature (heh, heh) adult is that a big part of quality is caring. This is easily observable when it comes to the conditions of the ice at outdoor (and indoor for that matter) rinks. The bottom line is that some of the people laying down the ice care and some do not. Sure, there are times when the weather makes it impossible for even the most dedicated of ice makers to get it right and times when a surly city employee, bitter because he has to get up early to flood the rink and isn't getting triple time, actually ends up with a beautifully smooth sheet. But most of the time, the quality of the ice you end up skating on outside depends on how much time the local personnel put into making it and how much they care about the result. There are dramatic differences in the quality of outdoor ice across the Twin Cities even though the weather conditions are usually quite similar. These days I live in Golden Valley and am glad that their parks and rec crew takes pride in having good ice. Edina is another example. In other cities, you're lucky if you can find decent ice even when the weather is perfect for its creation.

So I always thought that one of the best things in the world would be to have my own rink. I would determine when I wanted to skate. I would decide what purpose it would be used for. I would care enough to ensure that the ice was always good. Today, my own ice rink, tomorrow the world…

Excuse the megalomaniac sidebar. The point is that to have your own rink is to control your own destiny, to be independent, and self-reliant. What’s more American than that?

Of course, when I was a child my rink dreams knew no bounds. I would have my own private, full-size indoor rink (with boards, glass, scoreboard, lockers, etc.) as part of my sprawling housing compound. Next to the indoor pool, bowling alley, basketball court, library, movie theater, and garage with a helicopter landing pad on the roof where I would park my full-size Chevy Blazer when I wasn't driving it across the country with my two dogs.

Childhood dreams rarely turn out as reality in adult life, which is very probably a good thing. I don't have an indoor pool, bowling alley or basketball court (although my collection of books is decent and the flat screen in the basement is sorta theater like). Trying to land a 'copter on my garage would be disastrous and it houses a Kia minivan when I'm not driving it around Minnesota with my three kids (who bring immeasurably more pleasure than any number of canines could). But now I do have a rink.

Granted, it's not a fully-enclosed, refrigerated, all-season, regulation size rink, but it is a rink that can be skated on. And damnit, it's my rink. Ummm...I mean it's our family's rink. That’s right, this is all about the family after all. Kids skating outside, hot chocolate by the fire, and all that.

Realizing the rink dream turned out to be a challenge this year. After making the decision to do it early in the fall, I conducted research on the best methods and sought advice from others who had previously pursued the dream. I didn't have a set date in mind when I would construct the frame and have it ready for cold weather, but thought that Thanksgiving Weekend would work out well.

And then it went snowed almost two weeks before Thanksgiving. We got about eight sloppy inches of the white stuff which was fun for the kids, but not for my rink plans. I didn't get a chance to clear the snow from the planned rink location in the back yard before it froze up and became hard. I spent Thanksgiving Weekend chipping out a path to lay out the frame, cutting the boards to size, and getting them screwed together. The only thing left was to put down the tarp and flood. And then I went out of town on a business trip.

And then it snowed again. After returning from my trip, I vowed to get the new snow cleared, lay the tarp, and get it flooded that coming weekend. Which was last weekend. The weekend when we got anywhere from seventeen to twenty-one inches on snow.

So on Friday afternoon, while our neighbors were gearing up for the coming storm, I was in the backyard snow-blowing the ground where the rink would go. On Saturday, I was snow-blowing the newly fallen snow on the driveway. On Sunday, I again took the snow blower to the backyard to clear a path to the rink and then again to clear out the snow inside the frame. About two-thirds of the way through that chore, the snow blower had enough and broke down. So I finished up with a scoop shovel. Then, in wind and sub-zero temps, I unrolled and laid out the tarp and stayed up until 11:30pm on Sunday night flooding the rink with a garden house (had to take advantage of the bitter cold snap). Yes, my wife does think I'm crazy.

But we have a rink. I haven't had a chance to test the ice, but it looks like it turned out okay, especially considering this was my first effort. There are a couple of low and high points where the boards for the frame are laid out and I may have to alter the location a bit next year for slightly more level ground. And since the kids are still young and learning to skate, I elected to keep it fairly small and not put up any sideboards. I'll have to consider adding them next year. And lights, nets, painted lines, benches, a scoreboard...

In some ways, my rink dreams have been realized. In others, they're just beginning.