A winter’s tale, indeed.
I encountered a recurring story more than 15 years ago in the north metro. The moment came during our family’s first Minnesota winter. It was predawn — crazy early — and unthinkably cold. Something deep in our backyard was awash in a white glow, just beyond the fence and the trees in silhouette. Powerful spotlights illuminated an area, but deepened the darkness around it. It appeared to be some spectacle, like part of the moon had broken off and cratered.
Then, the scene became clearer. I could follow a sort of arcing, misty spray of water back to its source. The water was attached to a hose, which was attached to my neighbor, who was attached to his mission: An outdoor ice rink.
Hockey is the Minnesota sport, but outdoor hockey might hold a place even closer to our state’s collective heart.
Two new books arrive at the same fundamental sentiment, wrapped around an activity that has held sway in Minnesota families for generations. “Backyard Ice Rink: A Step-by-Step Guide” moves confidently (and in a friendly voice) through the nuts and bolts. “Pond Hockey: Frozen Moments,” a collection of vivid photography from across North America, drills down further still to the essence of what will go on out there once the weather cooperates: Simple joy.
The origins of “Pond Hockey,” published this month, could well be traced to Mountain Iron, Minn., in the early 1980s. It’s there that Tommy Haines moved at age 5, and outdoor hockey (“there were only outdoor rinks”) became an elemental part of his family’s life. Organized hockey receded when the Haineses moved to the Twin Cities in 1987, but rink rat status remained and continued to inform the lives of Tommy and his brother, JT. Through their film company, Northland Films, the Haineses and their partners produced the documentary “Pond Hockey” in 2008. The film centered on the first year of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis, reflecting the sport’s common history and allure.
“The initial reaction to the movie was so much more significant than expected,” said Haines. “It seemed like we were part of a movement that had been created.”
After the documentary, some people inquired about more hockey projects. Haines said the company’s pond hockey book was an idea waiting for the right timing. Photographer Nicholas Wynia’s stirring images — many black and white — dominate the new book. An artist and former athlete, Wynia was a perfect fit, Haines said. “He has an uncanny ability to capture life at its most candid moments.”
Northland also solicited photos, keeping 20 of some 700 submissions for the 128-page book.
The goals for the project were twofold, Haines said. First, capture the vastness of pond hockey, represented in the book from the rinks of Mountain Iron and Eveleth to a pickup game on the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska.
“I’ve always been interested in seeing how different a location can be. I’ve been amazed by the uniqueness of all these frozen playgrounds,” Haines said.
The other objective: Reveal the richer, truer reality of pond hockey. It isn’t all family ponds and hot cocoa. “There is an attractiveness to how tough it can be sometimes, how bitterly harsh the wind can be, the pressure cracks on the ice, the shoveling, the freezing fingers and toes,” Haines added. “All these things, while they are challenges, are part of what makes outdoor hockey rewarding.”
“Pond Hockey” goes for the sport’s heart, and author Joe Proulx genuinely does the same in “Backyard Ice Rinks: A Step-by-Step Guide.” Clearly and efficiently, Proulx gets into rink plans, costs and maintenance (the “$250 rink” and the “full dasher boards” among them), but he knows what motivates, too. As his foreword contributor wrote: “But in all our lives, the rink’s ultimate role far surpassed merely giving us a place to skate.”
Proulx’s credentials for the DIY book are substantial but, like many beginners in the rink-building realm, he started with cheap materials and bits of knowledge several years ago. “I was fortunate that it didn’t fall over that first year,” he said.
Proulx, of Bedford, N.H., started to catalog information he received from other builders and from his own successes and mistakes. That detailed work morphed into a popular blog (backyard-hockey.com). He wrote the blog for five years before he built his first rink commercially. Elite Backyard Rinks opened in 2011, transforming backyards across New England.
Proulx said there are multiple forces driving the “whole rebirth” of outdoor hockey and, with it, backyard rinks. The hyper-organized structure of youth hockey, the freedom of pond hockey, the NHL Winter Classics, and good old nostalgia are fueling the popularity.
Proulx said he wasn’t aware that Minnesota was such a hotbed of outdoor hockey (and backyard rinks) until his activity deepened. The documentary “Pond Hockey” was a major influence, as are his blog followers in the Midwest.
“I joke that I should have been born there, because a lot of what I stand for and how my kids are raised and the feelings I have toward the game resonate more in Minnesota than anywhere else,” Proulx said. “Minnesota is just special.”