With indoor rinks closed, players turn to ‘speakeasy hockey’

By Kevin Armstrong

One by one, the hockey players drove down a dark road in the foothills of the Adirondacks in search of fresh ice on a recent Friday night.

The regulars knew where to turn. Nine pairs of skates dangled from a clothesline above the apron of a gravel driveway, marking the private property’s entrance. Lights affixed to trees illuminated a snow-covered lawn. Wood burned in an old barrel.

Christian Klueg welcomed the invited guests — players ranging from teenagers to 50-somethings — to his backyard hockey rink. For 27 years, he had built smaller versions. But when he realized indoor rinks in New York would be closed or have restricted hours because of the coronavirus pandemic, he went all-in on upgrades. He drove 172 miles north to the Canadian border in December to purchase a 1987 Olympia ice-resurfacing machine.

His playing surface measured 71 feet by 125 feet (an NHL rink is 85 feet by 200 feet), and it was enclosed by boards 4 feet high that a minor league team once used. Klueg kept the resurfacing machine next to a 7-foot stack of firewood. Only one thing was missing as he grabbed a stick and skated from his house to his dream rink.

“Anybody want to play goalie?” he said.

Klueg, 39, a father of three, isn’t the only person playing hockey closer to home this winter. Locked out of indoor rinks because of the pandemic, hockey parents pivoted to their backyards, where they repurposed old barns, expanded previous playing spaces or purchased easy-to-assemble kits to keep their children occupied. Some were especially resourceful, spending a couple of hundred dollars at Home Depot and building from scratch. Others invested thousands in customizing rinks they had bought online.

First-timers learned to negotiate inconsistent thaws and freezes, and anxious hosts added umbrella insurance on top of homeowners insurance in case injured visitors filed lawsuits. Like-minded neighbors knocked down fences to share space for rinks, while others complained about noise created by pucks crashing against wooden boards. With ice time at a premium, backyard rink owners were flooded with requests for open skating times.

“It’s almost like Prohibition-era speakeasy hockey,” Klueg said. “Knock a certain way, come on in.”

But no matter how hard someone bangs on her barn door in Hinesburg, Vermont, Rebecca Racine Keinath, 47, isn’t letting outsiders into her new skating space. Last spring, she and her husband, Bart, figured their two children would be able to stay active outdoors all summer, but worried about what they would do in the cold-weather months if a vaccine were not available.

So they took measurements of their 74-year-old dairy barn. Drainage grooves in the concrete on the ground floor prevented them from building a rink on that level, but when they looked up at the hayloft, they envisioned playing the game on a higher plane. They built stairs, removed much of the straw in the loft and patched holes in its wood floor before laying new planks and a tarp and then flooding it when temperatures dropped in mid-December.

They installed LED lights for red and blue lines, and to keep an eye on the children from the kitchen, they set up a security camera. Visitors will not be allowed inside until the virus is better contained.

“The cows might be rolling in their graves, but it’s warming to me that this beautiful barn isn’t just going to waste,” Racine Keinath said. “I like a little old with a little new.”

Dylan Gastel, 24, inventor of EZ ICE rinks, learned how to build a rink in an old-school way. Growing up in Lincoln, Rhode Island, he worked with his father constructing outdoor rinks. Over three weekends each November, they would saw plywood, hammer stakes into the ground and drill holes for screws. Eager to skate, Gastel would sit in his high school classrooms refreshing the Weather Channel’s website to learn when the next cold front was coming. Once the water froze, he sometimes skated until 3 a.m.

“The only times my mom let me go in late to school was if I stayed up skating all night long,” he said.

He eventually went to Yale, studied mechanical engineering, gained an entrepreneurial grant of $1,000 from a Yale program, developed the prototype of a rink that could be assembled in an hour and started a backyard rink company in his dorm room. Gastel’s modular kit offered lightweight plastic boards, connecting brackets, a liner and straps that held the system together. No tools were needed. In his first year, he said, he sold $1 million worth of rinks, and he doubled that in his second year.

Then the pandemic hit. As school districts and local governments shuttered indoor facilities, Gastel said, he watched sales spike in those same areas as families, schools and towns purchased his rinks to offer outdoor options. In September, he projected he would run out of supplies by Christmas because of accelerated demand.

So to shore up the supply chain, he traveled the Midwest in the fall and into the winter, securing additional production sites and warehouses. In three months, the company expanded its manufacturing capacity 500%.

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

For many parents, their reward has been watching their children skate just outside their window. Robert Goldenberg, 46, had contemplated buying a pool to offer his family a respite from extended indoor time over the summer. He decided against it, in part, because he didn’t want to take space away from the rink the family has used through many winters.

His two sons tried out for a travel team in October, but the season was suspended before final cuts had been made. The sons, who are 15 and 18, have not returned to an indoor rink, but they sharpen their skills at home in a Montreal suburb.

To prevent pucks from landing in neighbors’ yards, Goldenberg added plywood fencing and 10-foot netting by the goal. But one night in January, he was in his second-floor office and heard a loud bang. His 15-year-old, Brett, had shot a puck, which ricocheted off the crossbar and crashed through the family’s dining room window.

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

Other rink owners have taken extra precautions. Brian Cook, 42, known in his Wisconsin neighborhood for his elaborate Christmas light displays, consulted an insurance agent about opening his 4-year-old rink to people outside his family this winter. After answering questions from an underwriter, he took out a $1 million umbrella policy. He welcomes friends and children from around the neighborhood.

“I have to make sure my butt’s covered to where I don’t lose my house because someone had a major concussion on my ice,” said Cook, who offers visitors skates, in a variety of sizes, that he has collected over the years.

To alert skaters to possible trouble, Klueg places orange cones by soft spots on his ice. His house rules include a ban on body checking.

Klueg has considered more renovations to his 13-acre plot. His wish list includes a 50-ton chiller with 8,400 square feet of refrigeration mats that would keep the ice frozen even when the temperature reaches 50 degrees. He estimated that he had poured $10,000 into his rinks over the years.

Between shifts during a recent game, he envisioned his barn as a heated bay where he could park his ice resurfacing machine.

“Next year,” he said.

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