Kids of all ages are flocking to back-yard skating rinks in Lino Lakes, thanks to the recent cold snap.
Last week's arctic blast gave an assist to one of those staples of Minnesota winters -- the back-yard hockey rink -- but even amid the mostly mild weather the tradition endured, as three hockey dads in the Centennial School District can attest.
This is Ben Peterson's third year in the back-yard rink game. The Lino Lakes resident has two sons, ages 13 and 11, both hockey players. They went to skate on a buddy's rink in Elk River a few years ago, and the idea took over. "I really wanted one," Peterson said.
The first year didn't come without problems. The ground wasn't level, "so I ended up asking a neighbor who was a farmer, and we put it up in the old pasture behind his house."
This year, the rink dimensions are 50 by 100 feet. The farmer helped level the ground with his Bobcat, and Peterson and some neighbors built the frame from old boards.
The rink attracts kids of all ages around the neighborhood. "The older guys slow the game down a little bit so that they can play with the younger guys. They all know the rules of the rink, and show respect," Peterson said. "If they don't, they aren't going to be invited back."
Rick Mathies lives nearby, and his 10-year-old son often can be found on Peterson's rink -- when he's not on his own.
In Mathies' case, Mother Nature gave a hand: When the family moved to the neighborhood in 2007, their property came complete with a small pond. Right away, Mathies went out and shoveled off the snow.
"People started coming out of the woodwork," he said with a laugh. "Everybody showed up. Since it's a pond, it does crack, and it's exposed to the elements a lot, so I started running a hose off the water heater and flooding it once a week. It gives the kids a good skating surface. I added built-in nets, also."
Mathies also says the neighborhood kids are respectful of the pond rink rules. "All the kids play on teams, and there's always somebody out there," he said. "All the neighbors got together and bought sets of 1,200-watt lights. ... we have nine sets of lights up. I sometimes think a plane might land there!"
Both dads agree that the rinks have brought the neighborhood together. "We'll keep this going," said Peterson, "We're making memories for the kids that they can remember for the rest of their life."
Bob Sproull, another Lino Lakes dad with a 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, also is making memories. After tinkering with a 20-by-40 rink last year, he bought a kit last fall and put up a 30-by-62 sheet.
Sproull said the neighborhood kids have found his rink as well. "Everyone has liked it, it's much smoother than some of the other rinks," he said, "My rink holds 14,000 gallons of water right now."
He has added some little touches, including LED lights mounted to trees, and has extra skates and dozens of extra pucks for the kids. He even has rigged up his own "PVC Pipe Zamboni" which hooks to his hose in the garage and helps smooth the ice.
So did the mild early winter cause any problems? "This year, it's actually been really nice," Peterson said before the deep freeze. "We got our rink set up and filled with water before that first cold snap, and it froze all the water in the rink.... Some days, the kids were out skating in their T-shirts, it's been that warm."
Mathies concurred that it hasn't been "that bad" this winter. "I actually would like a little snow," he said, "it's so brown. Last year was a major task, there were three of us dads out there with our snowblowers getting the snow off the pond ice."
Sproull said the warm weather has pros and cons. Pucks are easier to find without all the snow on the ground. However, all the leaves and seeds blow onto the ice on a windy day. He said he had to get on his knees and dig them out with a screwdriver.
"You definitely spend a lot more time preparing it and serving it than you actually use it," said Sproull. "However maybe next year I'll sell sponsorships!"
Kelly Jo McConnell is a freelance writer from Lino Lakes.