Ice and easy

Facing another bleak winter? Spice things up with a backyard skating rink.

When Peter Tetley was growing up, he and his three brothers learned to skate on a frozen pond not far from their family’s farmhouse in rural Ontario. During the long winter months, the four boys would play ice hockey whenever they wanted, with whomever they wanted, and it cost them nothing.

Now, the 48-year-old court justice, hockey coach and goaltender has children of his own and he has continued the tradition of the Tetley skating rink at his home in King City, Ont. He hasn’t been blessed with a pond, but he has developed a good alternative — a 35-by-50 foot backyard rink that he has constructed every winter for the past 16 years, with minor adjustments each time. His latest addition: high-intensity halogen lights. “They allow you to really illuminate the rink, because most of the games take place at night,” he says. “You get 1,000 watts of light and you’re in business.”

Like Tetley, more and more Canadians are putting rinks in their backyards. And while some of these eager iceowners rely on nothing more than a hose and a shovel, a growing number are pouring buckets of dollars into lighting systems, professional-quality boards and even more exotic paraphernalia.

“What can I say? Walter Gretzky inspired me,” says a rinkowner we’ll call Scott. He is, of course, referring to the man who built a backyard rink for his son Wayne, and thus become a deity to all hockey-loving dads who dream of NHL glory for their own sons. Scott, who prefers to remain semi-anonymous to keep hordes of freeloaders at bay, has built a rink for himself and his three sons in his rural Ontario barn. Not any old rink either. His has a dressing room, hot-stove lounge, a portrait of the Queen — and a 1960s-era Zamboni. “It has been a little bit of a project over the years,” he says.

Zamboni aside, Scott’s rink is mostly hand-made. Other rink builders who are less mechanically inclined swear by commercial kits. These kits range in price from a few hundred dollars — for basic, low-tech rinks — up to tens of thousands of dollars for state-of-the-art indoor rinks, complete with refrigerated pipes below ground. The right rink for you will depend on your budget, the size of your backyard and, perhaps most important, your level of devotion to smooth ice.

For starters, take a good look at your backyard. The ideal yard is big, flat and treeless, but you can usually get around slight imperfections. Indeed, just about every backyard has a slope in order to drain water away from the house. If the slope of your yard, from one end to the other, is less than about 30 cm deep, you should be fine. (The ice will just be slightly thicker at the far end.) Anything more than that and you’ll probably need to grab a shovel and start leveling the ground.

Don’t be overly concerned about the size of your rink, since even Gretzky devotees settle for a fraction of an official NHL surface (that would be 85 by 200 feet — sorry, but anything associated with skating is decidedly un-metric). According to Dominique Juliani, sales manager of Farley Technologies Inc., a Montreal-based company that designs and manufacturers kits, the most popular rink measures 21 by 37 feet — less than a quarter the size of a pro rink. “It seems that that is the magical number for backyards,” says Juliani. It’s big enough to accommodate a modest game of shinny, but not so large that pucks will end up on your dining room table.

Regardless of your rink’s size and whether you’re using a commercial kit, the construction remains similar. You begin with a frame that corresponds to the shape of your envisioned ice. Do-it-yourselfers like Jack Falla, a former Sports Illustrated staff writer who resides in Natick, Mass., bury wooden posts in the ground and attach sheets of plywood — usually 4-by-8 foot sheets that are cut in half — to the posts. “This is the 20 th year for the rink,” says Falla, 58, who refers to his rink as the Bacon Street Omni. “The first year I put it up, I would guess it took 20 to 24 hours of work, spread over five days.” Falla has documented his labor of love in a book entitled Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds.

If “labor” and “love” aren’t your choice combination of words, kits will reduce your workload considerably. Farley Technologies’ kits, called Ice N Go, use flexible PVC tubing as a frame. You simply snap together the pieces of tubing, as though you’re assembling track for a model railway. The rinks come in more than 40 different sizes and are available at Sears, where the popular 21-by-37 foot version sells for $300. You can check out the rinks online at

Most kits come with liners. These are usually polyethylene sheets, 4-to-6 mm thick, that attach to your rink’s frame and serve as a waterproof foundation for your ice. Tetley, who still does his own thing, buys a massive tarpaulin for about $130, which he replaces every year. Either way, you pour water onto this liner on a freezing night — a process that can take hours, especially if your rink is large. “It’s part of the ritual for me,” says Falla. “I kind of enjoy making ice at night, a garden hose in one hand and a cognac in the other.”

If you would like a rink that can handle slap shots and the occasional body check, you’ll need boards. Backyard Rinks Ltd., based in Barrie, Ont., sells polypropylene-lined boards that will transform your rink into an arena. But be prepared for an arena-size price tag as well. Since 4-by-8 foot lengths cost $350 (U.S.) each, you will likely end up paying about $8,000 for a full oval. You can find out more at

Money not an object? Then consider a rink from Custom Ice Inc. (, a high-end rink manufacturer based in Burlington, Ont. The company, which was co-founded by former NHLer Dave Gagner, builds permanent rinks that have concrete foundations and refrigerated pipes. No, you won’t be able to skate in July, but you will have good ice for about five months of the year and you won’t have to worry about mid-winter thaws. The price for a small, 20-by-30 foot rink starts at $20,000. For full-size rinks, complete with plexiglass boards, you’re looking at $100,000-plus.

Whether you choose high-end construction or opt for the folksy do-it-yourself approach, don’t be surprised if an ice rink changes your life. You may become a more popular neighbor. Your kids may stop watching so much television. You may even rediscover your own inner youth. “I think I’d miss the rink if it was gone,” says Tetley. “Some nights, I go out and skate around with the lights off. It brings back a lot of good memories for me.”