There are three things you can count on during a Minnesota winter. It will snow. It will get cold. And there will be skating -- at indoor arenas, on lakes and ponds, and, increasingly, at home.
Flooding the yard, letting it freeze and turning it into a rink is a Minnesota tradition now being embraced by a new generation of enthusiasts as part of a broader renewed interest in outdoor hockey.
"It's a growing trend," said Glen Andresen, managing editor for the Minnesota Wild website, www.wild.com, which is sponsoring a contest to find the best back-yard rink (Entries will be accepted through Feb. 9 at www.wild.com/hockeyday.) "We know there are plenty out there. It's a pride thing. People want to show them off."
No one's counting back-yard rinks, but Minnesota is widely believed to have more than any other state. "If I had to guess, I would say that Minnesota has the most, easily," Andresen said.
"Minnesota is absolutely a hotbed; it's part of your DNA," said Joe Proulx, editor/owner of Backyard-hockey.com, a New Hampshire-based site. "But it seems to be spreading. We're starting to see a rebirth of the outdoor hockey movement." The number of pond-hockey events nationwide has ballooned from five a few years ago to almost 100 this year, he said.
The economy is one factor, Proulx said. "It's cheaper to skate on a pond than an indoor rink."
Back-yard hockey enthusiasts also have access to more and better resources than ever before.
"There's a whole cult of people online, with information and tips," said Josh Kahn, who tapped into that network when he installed "Kahn Ice Gardens" in his Lakeville back yard. (He now blogs about back-yard rinks at www. kahnicegardens.posterous.com.) His rink, which includes rope lights embedded in the ice, is used daily; his younger son's team practices there, and Kahn hosts an adult boot-hockey tournament and a lot of spontaneous parties. "It's a nice cure for cabin fever."
Building a back-yard rink is simpler than it used to be, according to Andresen. "Big suppliers are coming out with more products to make it easier for people to create them."
But the biggest factor driving the back-yard rink trend is a growing nostalgia for hockey the way it used to be played, before it was taken over by organized leagues and moved indoors.
"I wish I grew up playing outside," Proulx said. Even though he was "born into a hockey family" and started playing when he was 4, he skated outdoors only rarely. "It was a generational thing," he said. Kids of his era [he was born in 1980] and younger spent their free time playing video games indoors.
"There's a movement to get these kids back outside," he said. After his son was born, he decided to build a rink. "It's easier to provide opportunity when you have ice in the back yard."
His site started as a "diary" of his own project, but morphed into an information hub after he realized people were hungry for help. In one year, his monthly visitors jumped from 300 to 23,000. Proulx's first few posts were strictly instructional, he said. But the site has grown into a place to share heartfelt hockey stories. "At first I started incognito; I feared being ridiculed," he said. "It's such a macho sport -- it's not acceptable to gush about how much you love it."
But the late Jack Falla, who covered pro hockey for Sports Illustrated and published a popular website on back-yard hockey until he died in 2008, helped re-ignite passion for old-school hockey. "I never met the man, but he is the Elvis, the godfather, of back-yard rinks," Proulx said. "He made it cool and OK to let your emotions be part of the conversation."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784