Like many hockey players, the O'Brien brothers like to warm up before games by shooting a few pucks. Unlike most players, they shoot them in their finished basement.

Their mom, Liz O'Brien, doesn't mind a bit. Last year, she and her husband, Mike, turned a lower-level playroom in their Mendota Heights home into a synthetic ice rink for their four sons -- 10-year-old triplets Mac, Riley and Connor, and 7-year-old Finn.

"We surprised 'em with it, right before Christmas," Liz said.

The floor of the windowless room is now a wall-to-wall slick surface where the brothers play two-on-two scrimmages and practice their stick-handling. "People come over and can't believe they're seeing kids whizzing around in the basement," Liz said.

Minnesota has long been a hotbed of back-yard hockey, but synthetic home rinks are a relatively new phenomenon. Don Mason, president of KwikRink Synthetic Ice, the Maple Grove company that supplied the materials for the O'Briens' rink, has been in business 15 years, mostly outfitting hockey-training centers and other commercial facilities. But residential rinks are a growing part of his business, he said.

"Garages and basements are popular places," he said. "We've also put 'em in a lot of pole barns." In one home, Mason said, "we even raised the whole house 2 feet, so a tall kid on skates could have a full slapshot in the basement."

The market for in-home synthetic ice is "not huge -- but very passionate," Mason said. "Hockey is such an expensive sport, and a lot of hockey parents want kids to be able to practice at home."

With price tags typically ranging from $2,000 to $8,000, indoor "ice" can be a significant investment, but so is hockey. Many families regularly shell out thousands of dollars per year for fees, equipment, out-of-town tournaments and off-season training.

With four hockey-playing sons, the O'Briens expect their rink to reduce their overall outlay for the sport. "We spend so much on camps and stick-handling clinics," said Mike. "As they get bigger and older, we'll save money on that."

Liz sees value in the recreational benefits of having an in-house rink. "We looked at it as a sport court for hockey players," she said. "Living in Minnesota and being in the house so many nights a week, we've gotten our money out of it. The only downside is I wish it were bigger."

Year-round use

Mike and Katie Magnuson of Sunfish Lake put their family's synthetic rink in a shed that they formerly used for storage. "We talked about using [real] ice but this made more sense," Mike said. "The kids can use it year-round."

Sons Michael, 12, Danny, 11, and Patrick, 9, skate and shoot in "the barn" just about every day, Katie said, and sometimes invite their teammates for hockey and pizza parties.

This past Christmas, the Magnuson brothers received a radar gun so they can clock the speed of their shots.

"With the radar gun, they're competitive -- they see how hard they can shoot the puck," Mike said.

The synthetic surface is "a little harder to skate on" than real ice, Patrick admitted. "You can't really skate backwards. But the stick-handling feels about the same."

He and his brothers agree that they've improved as players since the rink was installed. "It helps you develop," said Michael, a goalie. "You can come out in the summer anytime you want."

James Dobchuk had both skill development and recreation in mind when he installed a 16-by-30-foot synthetic rink in the lower level of his home in Chanhassen. "For me, it's a combo platter," he said.

The house had an unfinished basement, and Dobchuk and his wife, Janice, were looking for a way to use the space. Son Toran, now 8, was just starting to play hockey. Daughter Alexa, 11, is a goalie. "As a goalie, you can't just work out in tennis shoes and pads," James said. Their youngest, Tavin, who just turned 3, is now learning to skate in the basement.

"His first time on ice was here," said Janice, pointing to their indoor rink. Tavin also likes to play "Zamboni," riding his plastic truck back and forth across the surface.

Goals without the gear

Because the Dobchuks' basement rink opens into a family room, the kids have to be careful where they aim the puck.

"We have a rule that you can only shoot that way," Janice said, pointing in the opposite direction of the TV screen. The big window overlooking the "ice" is covered with deer netting. But sometimes a shot will be so loud that it sets off the sensor in the home's security system, she said.

Just then, Alexa fired off a shot. "Mom, did you see that? Top shelf!" she said.

"They'll go for hours down here," Janice said. "They only come up when they need some water."

Most families install their own synthetic ice after buying the material, although KwikRink also does installation. "It was super easy," said James Dobchuk. (The material comes in sheets that dovetail together like puzzle pieces, then are secured with a rubber mallet.)

Synthetic ice rinks also require some maintenance. The surface must be kept clean; families say they restrict the use of outdoor street shoes on their rinks, to minimize grime. One family vacuums their rink; another rents a floor-scrubber to clean it. In addition, the surface must be sprayed with a lubricating solution every few weeks to keep it slippery.

Artificial ice also takes a toll on skate blades. Most families have their skaters wear their older "pond skates" on the synthetic rink, and save their "game skates" for actual ice. "Otherwise, we'd be sharpening all the time," said Janice Dobchuk.

Alexa likes their indoor rink because it gives her a place to practice shooting without having to wear her goalie equipment. "It gets hot with all the gear," she said.

Her little brother Toran's verdict: "It's awesome! I can skate, shoot, do a lot of hockey stuff. You don't have to go to open skate, and you don't have to pay for this."

"Well, somebody did," his mom said with a laugh.

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784