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Home > About BNE > Press Room > 2010 Archive > February > Rinks Become Backyard Entertainment Centers

Rinks Become Backyard Entertainment Centers

Published: February 10, 2010

BUFFALO — Dennis Weppner and his wife, Kathy, did not want a big bash for their 25th wedding anniversary last summer. Instead they chose to landscape their backyard. With the youngest of their five children now 15, they took down the playground and told the landscaper to create a Kansas-flat section measuring 80 feet by 40 feet.

 If it happens on ice and it involves hitting and scoring, The Times Slap Shot blog is on it.

Their timing could not have been better. Last week after Punxsutawney Phil spotted his shadow, signaling six more weeks of winter, and a snowstorm walloped the East, a scene assembled outside the kitchen window of the Weppners’ suburban home here. It was equal parts Norman Rockwell and Abercrombie & Fitch — lawn chairs, a fire pit, and their teenage sons and friends batting a puck around an opalescent rectangle bordered by flaming tiki torches.

Although some Buffalonians have coped with this year’s unusually frigid winter by fantasizing about Florida, many have instead rejoiced — and built backyard rinks.

Just as airline passengers over Palm Springs can count swimming pools, those flying over this hockey Riviera along Lake Erie can count homemade ice rinks.

It is a pursuit that, like the quest for an azure pool or a green lawn, means hours of work, bordering on obsession.

“Backyard rinks are a lifestyle,” said Sean Corrigan, sales manager at Leisure Living, a pool and patio supplier near Buffalo whose sales of backyard rink kits have soared 65 percent this season over last year. “A lot of people around here don’t let the weather keep them in the house in the wintertime.”

Corrigan said a combination of factors led to the spike in rink sales, including the popularity of the N.H.L.’s outdoor Winter Classic, excitement about the Vancouver Games and unusually cold weather.

Average temperatures in Buffalo have been below normal for three straight months, and February so far has been 3.5 degrees colder. “That’s pretty darn cold,” said Tom Niziol, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Buffalo.

Many backyard rink enthusiasts, including the Weppners, forgo kits in favor of building their own from materials bought at a lumber store. Planning and preparation usually take months.

Supplies can cost from $100 to $5,000, depending on the size and scope of the rink.

However they are built, all rinks have a couple things in common — they require cold weather and an assiduous caretaker willing to spend hours shoveling, hosing, smoothing and patching long into the night.

“He’s the ice man,” Kathy Weppner said of her husband. “And it doesn’t matter if he’s been up all night delivering a baby and seeing patients for 10 hours; he makes ice when he gets home.”

The Weppners run a 100-foot garden hose from the washtub in the laundry room — the spigot outside is frozen — through the kitchen and the family room, outside to the rink. They flood the ice with a resurfacing device called a RinkRake. When finished, the rake and hose are stored in the family room so they will not freeze.

“You shift away from what you thought was important as far as how your house looks,” Kathy Weppner said.

The payoff comes in other ways, Dennis Weppner said. “There’s nothing cooler than at 10 o’clock at night, hanging out with your son, being exhausted from skating, just lying back down and looking at the stars, saying, ‘This is great,’ ” he said. “You could hear a pin drop.”

Dave Muldoon began building a rink at the bottom of a slope in his suburban backyard five years ago for his sons, who are now 5 and 9. “You learn a lot about earth science when you have an ice rink,” he said. “Dark colors attract sunlight, and ice expands. It’s larger than water.”

To catalogue such accumulated wisdom, Muldoon fills a diary. He has learned not to paint lines on the ice and to push off stray leaves, both of which act like magnets for the sun.

Those are lessons Mike McDonnell learned long ago. A second-generation ice tender, he inherited his 30-year-old weathered plywood boards from the rink he and his siblings skated on while growing up. To keep the ice pristine, they took turns rising every two hours throughout the night to hose down the rink.

These days McDonnell wakes at 4 a.m. some days to tend the ice on his small city lot in North Buffalo for his two teenage sons, Joe and Michael Jr.

At 37-by-45 feet, the rink occupies McDonnell’s entire yard, butting up against a fence and hedge row, wedged between the garage and his meticulously painted Victorian. His wife, Reneé, sacrificed a flower garden two years ago for the rink, and six panes of glass have been broken so far. With four teenagers flipping pucks around, hockey games here look as if they are played in an orchestra pit.

 If it happens on ice and it involves hitting and scoring, The Times Slap Shot blog is on it.

Go to the Slapshot Blog » McDonnell vowed many times never to build the rink again. But he was overruled in December when his boys dragged the lumber out of the garage during a cold spell.

“It’s a constant battle,” he said. “You’re always battling Mother Nature.”

Not so at the rink owned by Todd Shatkin, a dentist, who after dealing with fickle weather two years ago built a rink with refrigeration before last season. A network of pipes pumps chemicals to keep the ice temperature constant, even during warm spells.

Measuring 32-by-64 feet, with nets at either end, surrounded by boards and lights, the rink is a relative Taj Mahal to backyard skating. During cold February days, when fingers and noses begin to freeze, players seek shelter a few feet away in a 10-by-16-foot warming hut with electric heaters, benches and a stereo system.

Constructed on 23 acres of land he owns next to his house, the setup, including updating his electrical panel, cost Shatkin about $60,000 and he said it was money well spent. He had been spending roughly $12,000 a year at local rinks to further his 16-year-old son Jared’s hockey development. Now when he is not working with a private instructor on his home ice, Jared Shatkin plays pickup games with friends.

“There’s little trophies that we give out,” he said. “We have tournaments here every week or every weekend.”

One of the players is Steve Petrotto, 16, who lives across the street from the rink and whom Shatkin pays to manage the rink part-time.

With the chiller cranked up, ice on the rink will last well into April, and so will his job. But by then other backyard rinks that rely on cold weather will be little more than puddles.