Ty Rollenhagen, 8, and his teammates on the Muskegon Chiefs Mite team practice on the backyard ice rink built by his father, Scott Rollenhagen. (Scott Rollenhagen)
While you may be cursing this week’s return of frigid temperatures, many take a certain native pride in the arctic blast.
This is what a Michigan winter should be, say these polar bear-like humans who think nothing of risking hypothermia, frostbite and all sorts of other freeze-your-buns-off, shiver-me-timbers discomfort. They sat in bleachers this past New Year’s Day, for example, watching the NHL Winter Classic in the Big House in Ann Arbor.
They can also be spotted in neighborhood backyards, flooding their backyards with the garden hose, celebrating when the temperature refuses to inch above 15 and serving up hot cocoa (Keurig lattes in the tonier suburbs) by the gallon.
These are hockey people, of course, and this year’s harsh winter (and it’s only January!) has been ideal for the backyard ice rink aficionado.
“We really enjoy it,“ says Joe Lockwood of Bloomfield Township of his 36- by 80-foot backyard ice skating rink. Lockwood and his wife, Christine, have iced over their lawn for their four kids, ages 7, 12, 15 and 17, for as long as they can remember. “Every year we seem to build it bigger and better. We invite friends over, build a big bonfire and watch the kids. It’s a lot of fun.“
The rink rekindles memories for Lockwood of his own childhood. The former University of Michigan hockey player (1984-1988) who grew up in Lathrup Village spent most every winter practicing shots on the backyard rink made by his father. Later, the family moved to Milford, where Lake Sherwood served as his practice arena.
Unlike pond or lake skating, backyard skaters don’t run the risk of falling through thin ice (experts say ice should measure 8 inches thick to be safe). Bubble-filled or bumpy frozen ice needs only a spray of the garden hose to resurface.
Never happier with the polar vortex is Jim Stoller, creator of NiceRink outdoor rink system based in Genoa City, Wis., just south of Lake Geneva. Thanks to this year’s bitter cold, NiceRink has had one of its best sales year ever. (The selling season is only 90 days.) “The season of 2011-12 was so warm, there were people that set up rinks on the East Coast and never skated once,” says Stoller. “Last year, we didn’t have the NHL until January and winter also didn’t start until January.”
This year, the demand was fast and furious. NiceRink, which sells brackets, plastic liners and other rink accessories, is a division of Sto-Cote Products Inc., a plastic sheeting company that Stoller’s grandfather began in 1948.
In 1992, when Stoller’s son Tyler was 11 months old, he built his own rudimentary backyard rink using plastic scraps from the warehouse. “In our family, if you can walk you can skate.” Stoller says. After tinkering and perfecting, NiceRink was born.
“There’s nothing like skating out in the backyard under the stars in the sky and all you hear is the blades scraping on the ice,” Stoller says. “They are wonderful memories.”
Look before you build
As a kid himself, Stoller and his two brothers played AAA hockey and competed against many Detroit teams like those sponsored by Compuware, Little Caesars and Honeybaked Ham. He can boast of playing against Mike Modano from Livonia, who became one of the top-ranked National Hockey League players of all time, and Derian Hatcher, another stellar NHL player from Sterling Heights. Tyler Stoller is 22 now and plays hockey for Grand Valley State University.
If you want to build your own backyard ice rink, Stoller advises to first consider the pitch or slope of you yard. “An ice rink is like a cookie sheet with sides. If you fill up a cookie sheet with water and then tip it, all the water will pour out one side.”
A white liner will keep your ice as cold as possible by reflecting the ultraviolet rays away from your ice and also protects your grass (for more detailed information, see nicerink.com). Finally, just hope the weather stays cold: 24 degrees or less is optimum.
Scott Rollenhagen of Montague, near Muskegon, says he welcomes this week’s forecast with highs only in the single digits. This is his second year of having a backyard rink for his son Ty, who turns 8 at the end of February. Thanks to the cold, he says, Ty is lacing up his skates before school, after school and all weekend long.
“This is Michigan,” Rollenhagen says. “If you can’t change it, you might as well embrace it.“