COVID-19 clusters have hit ice rinks across the country — including in Massachusetts, a hockey hotbed — during the pandemic. While indoor rinks stayed mostly open here, some players decided to practice outside instead.
That provided the perfect opportunity for one Newton company. EZ ICE, which sells do-it-yourself ice rinks for players to set up in their backyards, made $16 million in revenue last year and has surpassed its sales projections for 2021.
“Ice hockey is unique in that it is the only major sport that you cannot practice at home,” founder Dylan Gastel said. “Street hockey is just not the same as hockey on real ice.”
He credits the spike in home rinks largely to the increased interest in outdoor activities during the pandemic, from biking to surfing to ice skating. But EZ ICE also ramped up its marketing.
Having played hockey since childhood, Gastel used to construct makeshift backyard rinks with his father using plywood, drills, and saws.
In 2016, he began selling a do-it-yourself rink that he advertises as something users can assemble in under an hour, on any surface, and without the need for typical building tools.
Customers set up a perimeter around their yard by fitting together plastic boards like puzzle pieces — held in place by brackets and straps — then lay down a tarp-like liner that will be flooded with water and, depending on the weather, freeze into a skating surface.
Demand for the product was so high in 2020 that Gastel tripled the size of his team. Now, he said, EZ ICE employs about 20 people and sources its rink components from about a dozen manufacturers across New England and the Midwest.
The company ships to customers in the United States and Canada, serving mostly families with children. It also sells to towns and military bases as well as players and coaches from the National Hockey League.
Florence resident Travis Sias ordered an EZ ICE rink last year for his kids to use while commercial rinks were closed. His son plays on a team, he said, and has improved drastically since being able to practice at home. And while his daughter didn’t typically play, having access to the rink piqued her interest in hockey.
“We didn’t want to leave her in the house and leave her left out,” Sias said. “So when we go out there, like his friends come over, she comes out and plays with us now and she loves it.”
He built benches and lights to compensate for the early nightfall during winter, and when his son’s teammates came over to practice, they would all head into the yard for hours after Sias returned from work. At the height of winter, the family used their rink on a daily basis.
Still, it can be a hefty investment — each setup can cost anywhere from $2,280 to $44,830 based on size, wall height, and other features. Sias has spent about $6,000 for the initial rink and subsequent upgrades.
To him, it was a sensible splurge because the plastic walls won’t rot like wood might over the years. And because his family uses it so often it ends up being cheaper than renting ice time at a hockey rink, which can cost hundreds of dollars an hour.
Gastel said word-of-mouth marketing has been integral to the growth of the company, which has put its rinks in thousands of backyards since its inception, including nearly 2,000 in Massachusetts.
“[Customers] invite their friends, neighbors, teammates, cousins, everyone over to skate,” he said. “We’ll sell one rink in one town, and then the next year there’ll be five more rinks in that town or sometimes even in the same neighborhood.”
Angela Yang can be reached at email@example.com.