Shortly before the new year, Michael Agus decided that it was finally time to fill his backyard hockey rink.
Rink builders live in fear of having their rinks full of water for too long; there’s just too many things that can go wrong. They’re built to be rinks, not pools.
But the 10-day forecast looked good, and winter was so very late already. It must be time, he thought.
He was wrong.
“I woke up in the morning and the entire thing was flat, like someone had driven over it,’’ he said. The extreme weight of the water broke down his homemade boards, flooding his yard and those of his neighbors.
Such stories have become the norm in this, the annus horribilis for the backyard rink builders of New England. They’re a hardy group, resourceful and not easily deterred. But they are powerless without winter, and even with occasional stabs of cold like this weekend’s, the parade of balmy days has meant one disaster after another.
Like a baby or a puppy or a saltwater fish tank, the amount of work required to keep a backyard rink alive is more than anyone thinks going in. The maintenance is continual and can’t be skipped, but the real dangerous time, the one that can completely ruin an entire season before it starts, is when the rink is filled but not frozen.
Devotees of skating and hockey say the effort and the often difficult weather are the price they have to pay for moments of pure magic.
No one’s yard is level, veteran rink builders will tell you. A yard with even a few degrees of slope will translate to many additional inches of water at the deep end. And until it freezes and stabilizes, that water will spend its time trying to rip down the wall and get out and over and through the liner.
That makes choosing the right time to fill an art that all builders obsess over. When the first real cold nights came two weeks ago, most everyone gambled and lost. The cold produced maybe a day or two of skate-able ice, but the warm spell that followed turned the rinks back to liquid. Last week’s rain only compounded problems.
“The stress of 10,000 gallons of unfrozen water and soft ground is enough to keep you up at night,’’ said Steve Goldstein, who has a 33-by-72-foot rink in his backyard in Hopedale.
As it is, the warm weather has eaten away a good chunk of what is usually a short season even under the best circumstances. In the Boston area, the roughly 60 days between late December and late February are usually all you get. Steve Gruber’s three kids ask him every night when they will be able skate in their backyard in Brookline. They should be out there every night by now, they say; instead, it’s just their dad with the telescoping pool net he bought this year to clean the leaves and sticks out of the water.
In Cambridge, Nick Peters was losing his patience with the wait. “I’m just really, really frustrated,’’ he said. “We’ll never get to skate.’’ He’s 5. He went outside to the rink and used his hockey stick to chop at a layer of ice floating on top of the water. His 2-year-old brother, Monte, helped him.
There is always something waiting to frustrate you with a rink, veteran builders say. Even in a good year, the workload required for good skating ice is constant.
“It’s not your lawn, where you cut it every Friday,’’ said Alex Rogozenski, who lives in Northbridge and runs a part-time business building backyard rinks. Last year, it was the snow, which needs to come off or else it will act as a heat blanket and create a layer of slush underneath. It was a backbreaking year. Kids promise to shovel the rink, said Farla Russo, who has had a rink in his front yard in Brookline for four years, but they never do.
After last winter, Tom Caron searched the Internet for the smallest snow blower he could find so he could lift it over the boards. The gear, and the tinkering, is part of the appeal, he said. In past years, he has bought a leaf blower to force snow and leaves to the side during stretches when the ice was too thin to walk on.
“I could talk to someone about their backyard rink for 10 hours, about their gear and all their little tricks,’’ said Caron, a NESN hockey analyst who has a rink in his backyard in Framingham. “You become obsessed with it.’’
But there is nothing that can be done to beat the warmth. Joe Proulx, a Bedford, N.H. man who blogs about the outdoor game at backyard-hockey.com, called this the worst winter he could remember for ice, and said outdoor tournaments around the country are being pushed back or canceled.
In New Hampshire, Scott Crowder is facing a huge disaster. The 25-year-old has hosted the New England Pond Hockey Classic on Lake Winnipesaukee for a couple years. But with 1,200 players scheduled to arrive in less than three weeks for this year’s tournament, he is looking at open water where he needs 15 inches of ice.
But for those devotees of the outdoor game, the effort and the weather are the price you pay to get to those moments of pure magic. “Every so often you get this idyllic night,’’ Jon Frankel said this week as he gave a reporter a tour of the rink behind his Brookline home. “The kids from the neighborhood are all out. There’s moonlight. The adults are enjoying a drink by the fire. You can’t beat it. It makes shoveling in the pouring rain seem worth it.’’
Frankel inspected his supports. He has lost walls in the past, but they seemed solid now. He just had to make it to the weekend, he hoped, when temps were finally slated to plummet into the sweet spot.
He didn’t make it. On Thursday afternoon, the rain eroded a support and a section gave way, sending half his water to visit his neighborhood.
He rebuilt his wall that evening and filled it with thousands more gallons. And then he hoped, again, that the terrible weather would finally go away.