The magic of backyard hockey
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"It has been a lens through which I have watched my children and their friends grow up, a gateway into the lives of friends old and new, a bridge back to the frozen ponds and rinks of my childhood, and a kind of extra room where I sometimes go to exorcise life's demons and worries."
— Author Jack Falla, on his Natick backyard rink, in his book "Home Ice"
Growing up in Watertown, P.J. McNealy skated and played hockey at Ryan Arena. Later, while a graduate student at Boston University, McNealy took a writing class with Falla and became enamored with his tales of backyard hockey.
"When my expecting wife and 2-year-old son and I moved back here from California 10 years ago, we bought a house a street over" from Falla's, said McNealy, now 48.
"When I'd show folks our Natick neighborhood, I'd slow down to point out a home — that home — which was home to the hallowed Bacon Street Omni, Falla's own backyard rink.
"Both my son [Jack] and daughter [Emma], now 12 and 10, respectively, learned to skate through the Natick Comets program," he said.
"About five years ago, it was time to take a shot at building a rink. The kids loved skating, and they inspired me to learn, read, talk to others, and make a ton of nonfatal mistakes along the way."
Outdoor hockey has a special place in New England lore, from the Black Ice holidays celebrated by Hobey Baker and his teammates at the St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., to the original Boston Winter Classic at Fenway Park in 2010.
The venerable Jack Kirrane Skating Rink at Larz Anderson Park in Brookline gives outdoor hockey fans a chance to play on a refrigerated sheet under the stars, but that means traveling.
Backyard rinks capture the soul of the outdoor game in all its imperfect beauty. These rinks, while prone to the whims of Mother Nature, are all about creating magic at home. AJ (Mleczko) Griswold, a Connecticut native now living in Concord who played on the 1998 US women's hockey team that captured Olympic gold, said she wanted a rink "several years ago," but her husband, Jason, wasn't keen on the idea.
“He now is obsessed — no, passionate — about our rink and spends countless hours working on it,” said Griswold, now a mother of four.
"I love that my kids get outside even on the coldest days here. More often than not, they get a quick skate before the school bus comes, which is such a great way to start the day."
Though Griswold coaches her kids, she refuses to do so on the family rink. "The rink is for them to play, have fun, have friends over, and for us to play as a family," she said. "The days we can get hot cocoa, the fire pit going with hot dogs and s'mores, are the best."
That sense of spontaneous, unstructured play is a common theme among rink builders.
"The backyard rink truly gives the kids the freedom to be kids," said Chris Gibson, a New Jersey native now living in Essex. "There are no coaches yelling at them to do drills the right way and telling them to pay attention. They can experiment on the ice with trick shots and, most importantly, just have fun. . . .
"Truth be told, adults love the rink as much as the kids do," he said. "The rink is timeless."
Not that building one is a snap. Every owner has a tale — or several — of construction disasters. Most start with the reality that their yard isn't as level as they thought. No one, however, sounded discouraged. Len Bruskiewitz, a Wisconsin native who picked up hockey while attending Boston College, had the "ridiculous thought" of building a rink because his son's Learn to Skate program only offered an hour of ice time a week.
Water spilling over at one end quickly taught Bruskiewitz his Westford yard was uneven. "Another unpleasant surprise,'' he said, came when "one of the pipes to the outdoor spigots had ruptured, which ended up pouring water into my basement."
Perhaps it's because winter, like our own youth, is so fleeting that these rink impresarios relish the challenge. The rewards, they say, far outweigh the effort.
"When you stop to appreciate how short your time frame is with your kids under your roof, it makes the decision to bring dirt into the backyard and days of your fingers going numb screwing brackets into wood and spraying water on ice worthwhile," said McNealy.
"I'm pretty positive that not only my wife but also some friends thought I was crazy to want to make the backyard bigger just to have a bigger hockey rink."
For tips on building such a rink, try “Backyard Ice Rink: A Step-by-Step Guide” by Joe Proulx, editor of Backyard-Hockey.com . If you have an idea for the Globe’s “On the Move” column, contact correspondent Brion O’Connor at email@example.com.