• February 8, 2023

With Indoor Rinks Closed, Players Turn to ‘Speakeasy Hockey’

NORTHVILLE, NY – One by one, ice hockey players drove down a dark street in the Adirondacks foothills looking for fresh ice on a Friday night.

The regulars knew where to turn. Nine pairs of ice skates dangled from a clothesline over the apron of a gravel driveway, marking the entrance to the private property. Tree-mounted lights lit a snow-covered lawn. Wood burned in an old barrel.

Christian Klueg welcomed the invited guests – players from teenagers to 50-year-olds – on his hockey rink in the back yard. He had built smaller versions for 27 years. However, when he found that New York ice rinks would be closed or limited hours due to the coronavirus pandemic, he went all-in on upgrades. He drove 172 miles north to the Canadian border in December to purchase an Olympic iron renewal machine in 1987.

Its playing surface was 71 feet by 125 feet (an NHL rink is 85 feet by 200 feet) and was enclosed by four-foot boards that were once used by a minor league team. Klueg held the resurfacing machine next to a ten-foot stack of firewood. Only one thing was missing when he grabbed a stick and ran from his house to his dream train.

“Would anyone like to play goalkeeper?” he said.

Klueg, 39, father of three, isn’t the only person to be playing hockey near their home this winter. Banned from the rinks due to the pandemic, the hockey parents turned to their backyards, repurposing old barns, expanding former playgrounds, or buying easy-to-assemble kits to keep their kids busy. Some were particularly resourceful, spending a few hundred dollars in the Home Depot and building from scratch. Others invested thousands in customizing ice rinks they bought online.

First-time visitors learned to deal with inconsistent thaws and freezes, and fearful hosts added roof insurance in addition to homeowners insurance in case injured visitors filed lawsuits. Like-minded neighbors knocked down fences to share space for ice rinks, while others complained about noises made by pucks hitting wooden planks. Since the ice age was very scarce, the owners of backyard ice rinks were flooded with requests for open ice skating times.

“It’s almost like speakeasy hockey from the prohibition era,” said Klueg. “Knock in a certain way, come in.”

But no matter how hard someone in Hinesburg, Vt., Knocks on her barn door, Rebecca Racine Keinath, 47, does not let outsiders into her new skater room. Last spring, she and her husband, Bart, thought their two children could stay outdoors all summer, but worried about what they would do during the cold months if no vaccine was available.

So they took measurements on their 74 year old milk stall. Drainage grooves in the concrete on the first floor prevented them from building an ice rink on that level, but when they looked up at the hayloft, they imagined they were playing the game on a higher level. They built stairs, removed much of the straw in the attic, and mended holes in the wooden floor before laying new boards and a tarp and then flooding it as temperatures dropped in mid-December.

They installed LED lights for red and blue lines and set up a surveillance camera to keep an eye on the kids from the kitchen. Visitors are only allowed in when the virus has been better contained.

“The cows may be rolling in their graves, but it warms me that this beautiful stable is not just wasted,” said Racine Keinath. “I like a little bit old with a little bit new.”

Dylan Gastel, 24, learned how to build an old-school ice rink. Growing up in Lincoln, RI, he built outdoor ice rinks with his father. On three weekends in November, they saw plywood, hammer piles in the ground and drilled holes for screws. Desperate to ice-skate, Gastel sat in his classrooms to update the Weather Channel’s website to see when the next cold front was coming. Once the water was frozen, he would sometimes skate until 3 a.m.

“My mom only let me go to school late when I skated all night,” he said.

Updated

Apr. 14, 2021 at 8:48 am ET

He eventually went to Yale, studied mechanical engineering, received a $ 1,000 entrepreneurship scholarship from a Yale program, developed a prototype ice rink that could be assembled in an hour, and started a backyard ice rink company in his dormitory. Gastel’s modular kit featured lightweight plastic panels, connector brackets, a liner, and straps to hold the system together. No tools were needed. In his freshman year, he said, he sold $ 1 million worth of ice rinks, and he doubled that in his sophomore year.

Then the pandemic hit. As school districts and local governments shut down indoor facilities, Gastel saw sales spike in the same areas that families, schools, and cities bought his ice rinks to offer outdoor options. In September, he predicted that he would run out of supplies by Christmas due to accelerated demand.

To support the supply chain, he traveled to the Midwest in the fall and winter and secured additional production facilities and warehouses. In three months, the company expanded its production capacity by 500 percent.

“Had to take these risks a little,” said Gastel.

For many parents, seeing their children skate right outside their window has been their reward. The 46-year-old Robert Goldenberg had considered buying a pool to give his family a break from the longer indoor time in summer. He decided against it in part because he didn’t want to take any space away from the ice rink the family had used for many winters.

His two sons tried it for a travel team in October, but the season was suspended before the final cuts were made. The sons, who are 15 and 18 years old, haven’t returned to an ice rink, but they are honing their skills back home in suburban Montreal.

To prevent pucks from ending up in neighbors’ yards, Goldenberg added plywood fences and 10-foot nets at the gate. But one night in January he was in his office on the second floor and heard a loud bang. His 15-year-old Brett had shot a puck that ricocheted off the crossbar and crashed through the family’s dining room window.

“I didn’t think it would go that far,” said Robert Goldenberg.

Other ice rink owners have taken extra precautions. Brian Cook, 42, known in his Wisconsin neighborhood for his ornate Christmas lights, consulted an insurance agent about opening his four-year-old rink to people outside his family this winter. After answering questions from an insurer, he took out $ 1 million umbrella insurance. He greets friends and children from the neighborhood.

“I need to make sure my bum is covered enough so that I won’t lose my house because someone had a large concussion on my ice,” said Cook, who has a variety of sizes of visitor skates that he has collected over the years.

To make skaters aware of potential problems, Klueg places orange cones in soft spots on his ice. His house rules include a ban on body control.

Klueg has considered further renovation work on its 13 hectare property. On his wish list is a 50-ton cooler with 8,400 square feet of cooling mats that keep the ice frozen even at temperatures of 50 degrees. He estimated he’d put $ 10,000 into his ice rinks over the years.

Between shifts during a recent game, he imagined his barn as a heated bay in which to park his iron renewal machine.

“Next year,” he said.

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