About 10 miles outside of Bemidji, Minnesota's most iconic backyard ice rink — smooth as glass, ringed by towering pines, once featured in the pages of Sports Illustrated — is the place where hockey players go to heaven.
The 120-by-65-foot oval, two-thirds the size of what the NHL skates on, is bounded by boards from Bemidji State's old fieldhouse, the home of numerous national champs.
Each winter for the past 20 years, Bryan Hammitt, a local high school teacher, has taken on what amounts to a part-time job of packing snow and dumping nearly 20,000 gallons of water on frozen ground. "It's a huge amount of work," he admits.
But on a cold winter night, when the floodlights switch on, bright as the rapture, even the most stiff-legged, wobbly ankled skater among us can experience the sense of nostalgia and destiny, possibility and pride that Hammitt Rink evokes. No wonder it's been called hockey's Field of Dreams.
Minnesota is the State of Hockey, producing more Division I and NHL players than any other. It's also home to the most ice arenas per capita, and, though no one keeps statistics, it may also have the highest rate of backyard rinks.
The pandemic has spurred even more fanatics to create their own sheets, noted Grand Rapids-based photographer Matthew Jasper, whose coffee-table book "Home Ice" has positioned him as the state's rink documentarian.
"When you fly into California, you look down and see everybody's backyards with the pools," Jasper said. "If you're flying to Minnesota, you look down and everybody's got a backyard rink now. It's blowing up."
These rink builders — especially those with deluxe setups — spend long, frozen nights melting and chipping ice bumps, filling cracks, and standing out there with a garden hose. They dream of the Zambonis their spouses won't let them buy and settle for "homebonis" they've McGyvered out of hardware-store parts.
That's because good ice is the rink-makers' love language: a way to share their passion for sport with families, friends and neighbors, and cultivate a sense of community.
For Bill Traff, the massive, Olympic-size rink in his Long Lake backyard hosts families who live nearby, youth hockey teams, even curious beat cops patrolling the area. Neighbors donate electricity for the floodlights and gather by ice-side bonfires. The rink's ability to create camaraderie during hibernation season sealed the deal for a recent homebuyer nearby. "Oddly enough, I see more of my neighbors during the winter," Traff said, over the sound of sticks scraping ice and pucks smacking boards.
Owen Stahl, 11, Katie Stahl, her son Charlie, 9, and family friend Arnold Kadue, 11, lace up to play some hockey on Bill Traff’s Olympic size rink in Long Lake, Minn. Traff, pictured above pushing the hockey goals out, built the roughly 200 by 100 feet rink that attracts a lot of the neighborhood kids.
The romance, and reality
Indoor ice time was scarce and expensive even before the pandemic temporarily shuttered arenas. Municipal and backyard outdoor rinks make skating far more accessible. And their casual pickup games cultivate a freer style of hockey, Jasper explained, compared with the regimented drills of an arena team practice. "It's organic," he said of fresh-air play. "You go out there to cultivate your skill set or just have a great night under the lights."
These days, home rink-makers of all stripes often turn to the internet for inspiration and advice. John Greco, co-founder of the Backyard Ice Rinks Facebook group, describes the mentality of the hardcore hockey dads who make up the majority of its nearly 30,000 members.
"Growing up, you loved to play hockey and thought it would be awesome to have your own rink," he said. "Fast-forward 20 years and now you have your own house and it's time to make the dream come true."
Backyard rinks range from tiny to enormous, fleeting to enduring. Duluth's famous hockey family, the Frybergers, is known for having one of the oldest rinks, which has also fostered several Olympians. Bob Sr. started flooding the backyard in 1943, before moving the rink to an adjacent vacant lot and inspiring two subsequent generations to maintain the family ice.
There's a huge range of rink-making materials and methods, including DIY lumber packages and kits with plastic liners, brackets and sideboards, which typically range from the high hundreds to low thousands of dollars.
Some home rinks are on grass; others cover lakes or ponds; and a few, like the one owned by Amy and Deon Wolff, are on concrete. The previous owner of their sprawling Lakeville property, former Twins player Glen Perkins, converted a shed into a small ice arena. It's used several times a week by the Wolffs' youngest child, 12-year-old Dillon, and his hockey-playing friends.
For Deon Wolff, making smooth ice is a point of pride. He recently upgraded his handheld propane torch, for melting imperfections, to a retrofitted roofers' rack, so he can wheel several torches at once.
Rink-makers are famous for their homemade resurfacing contraptions, from PVC pipes and towels dragged behind buckets to tanks hauled on modified golf carts. Traff hooks three snow blowers together to clear his rink and invested in a military-grade water heater to make fresh coats of ice more robust.
But all home rinks share some universals: sun and warm temps are enemies; post-skate shoveling is a necessity, and late-night flooding is a mystical state.
"When you're out there at 10 o'clock and it's dark and the wind is still, you can hear everything from miles away," Greco said. "Then once you're done, you look at that perfect sheet for the morning and you're like, 'This is awesome.' "
"The people who do it love the ritual of it," Jasper said of the rink-making process. "But the romance and the reality of the backyard rink are sometimes worlds apart," he warned.
Greco echoed the sentiment. "You have to be willing to put the work in," he advised. "It's not just like, build it and they will come. It's build it — maintain it — and they will come."
Jesse Turnbull works with his neighbor Cris Sanderson, right, in putting up the boards for the hockey rink in Forest Lake, Minn. A crack on the surface of the rink reveals the challenges of having an outdoor surface on a frozen lake.
Jesse Turnbull of Forest Lake spent much of his youth threading his skates through his hockey stick and walking to an outdoor rink; a highlight of his high school years was playing in the state hockey tournament.
Hoping to pass the experience on to his three young kids, Turnbull has been building a rink on the lake outside his home since 2017. He uses an ice auger to drill holes for the posts. Then he puts up boards, painted with the Forest Lake Rangers logo. Then he pumps lake water through a hole in the ice to form Ranger Rink and a surrounding skating oval.
The rink's accessories include a fire pit, warming shack and skate sharpener. For maintenance, Turnbull invested in a power broom, ice shaver and small resurfacing machine called a Bambini. And, yes, he relies on a storage unit for all his rink supplies because there's no way they'd fit in the garage. "The truck already sits outside because of other hockey gear in there," he noted.
The windows of Turnbull's home sit outside the range of misfired pucks, but there are other hazards of the rink. Last year, an unexpected warm front softened the ice and a few boards sank in. (Wearing hip waders, Turnbull and a neighbor fished them out.)
Due to the lake, Ranger Rink is subject to ice cracks, which Turnbull fills with a bucket of slush and a hockey puck ("going old school," he says of the method). "Sometimes I ask myself, 'What am I doing?' " He admitted. "But I've got so much time into it that I say, 'This is what we're doing, because we're gonna go skating today.' "
In spite of all the work, Turnbull says he finds the rink-making process "somewhat therapeutic" and appreciates the benefits it has brought his family. "It's been kind of nice to show the kids that if you want to do something, you can put your mind to it and you can do it," he said. "I don't know who has more fun with it — me or them."
The home rink on Amy and Deon Wolff’s property is housed inside a barn on the property in Lakeville, Minn. There, her son Dillon Wolff, left, and friends Breckin McGill, Eli Swanson, and Will Grant play games and take breaks in the insulated warming hut after scrimmage sessions.
Drew Peterson's ice rink outside his Baxter home started years ago with 2-by-4s and a plastic tarp. Today, it's a 100-by-70 sheet with LED lights and signage advertising local businesses — what the low-key dad describes as "fairly extravagant for in the backyard."
In 2018, after Peterson's stepson, Jake Haapajoki, a popular athlete, died by suicide at age 16, the family began hosting a 3-on-3 hockey tournament to raise scholarship funds through their foundation, Smiles for Jake.
The event has drawn as many as 60 teams, from as far as the Twin Cities and North Dakota. A couple of thousand spectators show up to watch.
"It's really fun," Peterson said. "A lot of good stories are told. There's lots of laughter. And there's some very good hockey." Hosting so many skaters — among them Jake's best friends — has helped the family heal from their devastating loss. "It's a continual memory maker when you thought the memories are over," Peterson said.
During the rest of the season, Peterson estimates the rink attracts 100 skaters a week, including local team practices. Pro players from the area have been known to drop by and offer tips. He started getting so many skating requests from his network that he couldn't field all the calls and texts. "The rule is, If the lights are on, the rink is open, don't even ask," he explained.
This approach can have its downsides — "I could come home from work and I can't pull in my driveway or get in my house because there might be 30 or 40 vehicles parked," he said with a laugh. But the family has embraced the rink's popularity.
"I didn't know what to expect, but I love that it gets used, and I'd be disappointed if it didn't," Peterson said.