The Winner of the Long Pond Story Contest is Sean Gill of Stow, MA. Read on to have a look at Sean’s winning story.
The Quixotic Quest for Frozen Perfection
By Sean Gill, Stow, MA
Dark, dreary, day-light deprived days can be downright depressing for most of us New Englanders. Most seasonal affective disorder sufferers want to be anywhere other than here. A vast majority trudge to and from work in cuss-filled commuter boxes, their drudgery broken up only by occasional bits of televised joy or cozy fire-side book reading. Some seek solace on the sandy shores of the Caribbean for fleeting days of sun-soaked rejuvenation. Others head to mountain resorts for alpine excursions of downhill speed, scenery and fine dining. Not me. I head to my backyard. You may have noticed my peers lately. Over the past fifteen years or so, our insanity has sprouted up across numerous suburban lots north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Some mock our quixotic quest for frozen perfection. But in the end, most venerate our backyard hockey rinks. Usually, it starts with a simple rhetorical question. “Wouldn’t it be cool to add some fun to the winter and have a backyard ice rink?” Of course it would be. None of us seem to get outside or exercise enough in the winter. A backyard rink would be the perfect antidote to that. Yet the follow-up question is always underestimated. “How hard can it be?” Oh sure. We have some idea of the challenge. Yet first we dream about endless good times to be had, or remember our younger days spent outdoors on glistening ice with friends, hand-me-down skates and improvised rules and games. After all, who didn’t want to lace them up and go skate outside after watching the documentary “Pond Hockey” detailing the US Pond Hockey Championships in Minnesota? In that film, I’m sure we all agreed with Neal Broten when he lamented that kids today don’t play outside enough and said, “I wish I could go back and be 8 years old again for just a couple of days.” We’ve read everything written by the late Jack Falla, the godfather of backyard hockey in New England. His “Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds” detailing the joys and tribulations of his Bacon Street Omni in Natick, MA served as the inspiration for untold backyard ice palaces here and across North America. His simple, declarative statement, “I’ve never been unhappy on the rink” rings true to us puckheads. We’ve followed John Buccigross, Darren Dreger, Kevin Paul DuPont and other hockey media members on twitter, facebook and elsewhere detailing the construction of their ice sheets of dreams. We’ve heard the legend of Walter Gretzky, sitting at the kitchen table, carefully observing his lawn sprinkler slowly flooding a flat, snow-packed backyard in Brantford, Ontario to create the backyard rink that launched the hockey protégé that became the Great One. And we’ve probably picked up brochures in local hockey shops from firms and people offering customized construction of backyard rinks. We all want to be part of it. How hard can it be? I’ll save you some suspense. It’s hard. This is my sixth season chasing my platonic ideal of frozen perfection. The first year was a dud. I digested everything I could find about building a backyard rink. I followed countless internet communities, sought on-line tips and tricks, and ordered a pre-fabricated kit from NiceRink (whom I unreservedly recommend and endorse). I carefully measured the outline of the 48’ x 40’ rink, installed the boards and brackets, placed the liner down and waited for a cold streak. People advised not to install a backyard rink in an area that had more than 6 inches or so of pitch. I carefully surveyed the site with my eyes and said, “it looks flat.” It wasn’t, as was soon revealed when we started flooding the area with a hose and there was over a foot of water on one end and nothing on the other half the rink. Chalking it up to a learning experience, I thought I could make a go of it for the season with a 20’ x 20’ skating area and re-grade that part of the yard later in the spring. But, like every other rink builder, I learned Mother Nature always has other ideas. Within a day or two, we had a huge ice storm that knocked over two trees directly on top of this sad excuse for a rink. Given the widespread damage throughout the region, we couldn’t get a tree crew to come by and help with the tree removal until late February. Season 1 thus ended in complete failure. But, as rink builders will tell you, lessons learned last year translate into tips for success next year. Despite the incredulous looks I received from family members and neighbors when I asserted that I wanted to have a landscape crew come over with laser levels and fill to create perfectly flat 48’ x 40’ area in the backyard, even though we lived on a street with “Hill” in its name, that’s exactly what I did. And, in what has since become an annual tradition, on the Friday after Thanksgiving we began measuring the area to outline the shape of the rink, install the brackets & boards, started to compulsively watch weather.com’s local 10 day outlook to wait for a cold streak and thus plan for the right time to begin adding water and awaiting the frozen miracle. Every year it is different. Some years, I get a first skate in early December. Other years, it is not until after New Year’s. Sometimes the last skate is in February. Other times it is around St. Patrick’s Day. Yet, the challenge inherent to each season’s rink is different. A few years ago, it was snow. Most of us get more than enough snow shoveling duty when clearing our walkways or driveways. Backyard rink builders also contend with an additional few hundred square feet of snow removal every time the sky drops a few inches of snow. And waiting to clear it is not an option. The longer the snow sits there, the more problems are created in terms of slush and other ice defects. This year, the bane of New England rink builders’ existence has been sleet and slush due to continuous precipitation coming down on each side of the 32 degree line of frozen demarcation. Nothing can ruin a backyard rink worse than footprints made in slush that soon get frozen over and form semi-permanent speed bumps in an otherwise smooth ice surface. But, the one thing that remains constant from year to year is the requirement of constant vigilance and maintenance. Snow removal, slush management, ice resurfacing (mini-flooding from backyard ‘home-boni’s’), leaf & debris removal…it never ends. Throw in incidental commitments, like work, travel and other life requirements, and the headaches, challenges, and cursing increase exponentially. And the quest for smooth ice is never sated, given continuously fluctuating temperatures and Mother Nature’s frequent non-cooperation. And no matter what you do and how much you work at it, there are maybe 3 days a year when you’re truly happy with the ice surface. As much as we like to think of ourselves as amateur versions NHL ice guru Dan Craig (who is in charge of the NHL Winter Classic outdoor ice rinks), there is little chance we can ever replicate the idealized ice surfaces you see on the January 1st NHL showcase. And, I would estimate the work to fun ratio is on the wrong side of 2:1. But like Tom Hanks’ character, Jimmy Dugan, said about another sport in another context, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” So why do it? The aforementioned Jack Falla has written exquisitely about the joys of sharing the backyard rink with friends and family. Those frozen memories of kids growing up, gaining confidence, and making lifelong friendships are part of it. Plus, he could always tell who was a jerk based upon their willingness to help shovel the rink. It’s another way of saying backyard hockey may not build character, but it reveals it. Others have written elegantly on creating a haven for people to have fun, improvise, and play hockey in a manner that is too rare in these days of structured practices, organized travel leagues, and joyless hockey parents. All of that is true. But for me, there’s more. I guess part of it is selfish. My backyard rink can be a fortress of solitude at times. In times of stress, I’ve always found the perfect outlet has been banging slapshots. Since college, my great escape has been to find a rink somewhere offering stick practice for a couple of hours. Then, as now on the backyard rink, the phone doesn’t ring, no incoming emails demand attention, and nobody complains. Moreover, there are moments of serenity that are so perfect, so fleeting, and so unspoiled that I just crave more of them. To me, tranquility consists of those sounds, sights, and sensations that exist only on the backyard rink. The sound of skates cutting through the ice as you cross-over in the corner. The luminescence from a full moon rising over the surrounding trees reflecting off the snow. The thwack of a slapshot followed milliseconds later by the ping of the puck deflecting off the iron crossbar into a net. The cold air burning your lungs as your exhausted body craves more oxygen. Some refer to these sensations as ‘being in the moment’. My old theology professor, Father Ciani, SJ, called them liminal moments, or being in a place between the ordinary and the sacred. I call them a nightly occurrence. And so we backyard rink builders endure. We put up with the fickle weather. We tolerate the incredulous looks from neighbors. Deep down we know to outsiders, our continuing quest for frozen nirvana may appear foolhardy. We view our backyard rinks in the same way Lou Holtz described another fabled place. “If you’ve been here, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t been, no explanation will suffice.”