This story originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of The Red Cent and is reprinted with permission. If you are a graduate of Grand Forks Public Schools and would like to receive The Red Cent, as well as membership into the alumni network, click here.
I grew up across the street from Central Park in Grand Forks – and, every winter, all of the neighborhood kids would clomp over to the park, moon boots on our feet and ice skates over our shoulders, in order to rip around the outdoor ice rink. We had a small, unheated warming house that smelled like hot chocolate and cold air year-round, and I personally was on a ten-to-one ratio in regard to outdoor fun – for every one minute I spent leaning over the boards to watch a pick-up hockey game, I’d spend ten in the warming house drinking hot chocolate.
Like everything in Grand Forks, those Park District-run rinks have been upgraded over the years. Now, the nine outdoor locations have both lighted hockey rinks and pleasure rinks, as well as heated, supervised warming houses. I live near one of these Park District setups, and there’s rarely a weekend day or school night when you won’t find a pile of kids out for a skate.
Grand Forks’ public rinks continue to be so popular, in fact, that they have given rise to a new type of ice sheet: the backyard rink. Called ODRs (Outdoor Rinks), these home-based ice sheets have become the latest Hockey Dad (and sometimes Mom) craze.
For my family (mainly my husband), our ODR built up organically – literally. We used to live in the country, and one winter long ago our ditches filled up with water and froze quickly. My husband laced on our three-year-old’s skates – it was certainly more efficient than driving all the way to town – and off he went. The following year, my husband set up a few scrap boards, tossed down some poly, and turned on the hose; the next winter he tripled the size of the rink and included red and blue painted lines. Now, seven years later, my husband’s number-one requirement when we moved to town this summer was a house with a yard large and flat enough for a rink.
Ours is a common story among ODR families. Willie O’Connell (Central ’95)’s first rink was 16’ by 32’, and was built out of scheduling necessity. “When the kids were young it was hard to time everything right for both kids,” said Willie. “One always wanted to go home when the other wanted to skate. My thought was to have it in our own yard and then they could use it whenever they wanted.” The second year, Willie’s rink was 32’ by 48’, and included four-foot end boards. Today, the rink is 37’ by 85’, and has indoor-controlled spotlights, painted end boards, and thicker ice.
Tony Bina (Central ’96) first used a snow border for a small rink in the front yard of their house. Over time, he added side boards and pieces of plywood on the ends with deer fence netting to keep the pucks in the rink, halogen lights on all four corners, and rope lights and Christmas lights for additional lighting and decorations. “It seems like every year we had a new wrinkle to make the rink bigger and better,” said Tony. “This year I built a 40’ long skating ice path for the boys to skate from the back door of our heated garage to the rink without having to walk through the snow.”
Chris Horn (Central ’98) also upgraded his own rink, moving from wooden to modern, plastic boards as his sons grew. “The newer plastic rinks are easier to put together and look so much nicer,” said Chris. “I even decided to splurge a little bit and put neon lights under the ice where the lines would go to give the kids the effect of having an actual indoor hockey rink.”
No matter the size, quality, or the possibility of seeing the rink lights from space, ODRs are all about the kids. “I put up our rink just to get our son outside in the evenings, be it for twenty minutes or two hours,” said Tom Bock (Central ’98). “It’s actually become pretty fun; he plays music and has outdoor lighting and it’s his own little sanctuary. He will go outside for thirty minutes, come back in, and then go back out.”
For all parents, ODRs are a breath of fresh air. “The best part is watching my boys get dressed and head outside and skate, shoot pucks, play games with their neighborhood friends; even mom and dad lace them up at times to skate with them,” said Tony Bina. “It’s an outdoor playground for four-to-five months in the winter that gets them outside and off their screens. The kids can go out there anytime they want to skate, even if it’s for fifteen minutes or three hours. My wife and I enjoy watching the kids skate from our kitchen and living room.”
In building ODRs, families are also building friendships and exercise. “The best part of the rink is that it is there to use,” Willie O’Connell said. “When the kids get home from school, they are on it. On the early dismissal days from school the kids will get three-plus hours of skating before they go to hockey practice. Sometimes my daughter will get out of bed in the morning and skate for thirty to forty-five minutes before she goes to school. A winter afternoon or evening when you look out and see kids ranging in different ages playing hockey together makes the work that goes into a rink worth it.”
“Work” is the name of the game for ODRs. This year, it took my husband over a month just to get the rink set up and filled thanks to incompatible weather (Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate when it comes to freezing ice). He will now spend the rest of the winter shoveling off snow, refilling low spots, and making sure the boards can handle hours upon hours of play.
“If you are doing a rink for the first time, go and talk to someone who has done it before. The first thing you will learn is that they can be a lot of work once you have them built,” said Willie O’Connell. “Make sure your rink is a size you can maintain. You need to keep the rink clean, so when it snows you have to get all of the snow off of it.”
There is also a lot of trial and error when it comes to ODRs. “Make sure you have time and patience,” said Tony Bina. “Nothing ever works out exactly the way you want it to the first time…or any time, for that matter! It is best to ask other dads or moms for their input on how they did certain things to their rink, such as: What do you use for a plastic liner? How do you do the initial flood? How do you resurface it? If the plastic tears while you are flooding, what do you use to fix it? These are the questions I get from other rink builders, and also the same questions I have asked others!”
“My advice it to definitely plan ahead,” said Chris Horn. “One item you do not want to skimp on is the thickness and quality of the plastic liner. I would definitely recommend purchasing a high-quality liner from a company like Nice Rink or Blue Lake Plastics – and it seems to work better if you use a white plastic over a clear one, as the white doesn’t absorb the sun’s rays, which in turn doesn’t melt your ice quite as much on a sunny day.”
We’ve had some cold temperatures lately in Grand Forks; par for the ice rink course, as we all know. Despite the below-zero dips, my sons were outside – sledding, playing in the snow, and, of course, skating. Every ten minutes, one of them would come inside to warm up their pink cheeks (and eat a snack), and then go right back out again – because, as we also all know: Whether your definition of a backyard rink or your own ODR, across the board, everyone agrees that winters are for fun.
Header image courtesy Tony Bina