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When the indoor courts are closed, players turn to Speakeasy Hockey




NORTHVILLE, NY One for a reason the hockey players drove down a dark road in the foothills of the Adirondacks on a recent Friday night in search of fresh ice.

The regulars knew where to go. Nine pairs of skates dangled from a clothesline above the platform of a gravel path, marking the entrance to the private property. Lights attached to trees lit a snow-covered lawn. Wood fired in an old barrel.

Christian Klueg welcomed the invited guests, players ranging from teens to over 50s, to his backyard hockey rink. For 27 years he had built smaller versions. But when he realized that indoor jobs in New York would be closed or have limited hours due to the coronavirus pandemic, he went all-in on upgrades. He drove 170 miles north to the Canadian border in December to purchase a 1987 Olympia ice renewal machine.

Its playing surface was 21 by 125 feet (an NHL rink is 85 by 200 feet), and it was enclosed by four-foot boards once used by a minor league team. Klueg held the reapplication machine next to a six-foot pile of firewood. Only one thing was missing when he picked up a stick and skated from his house to his dream job.

Anyone want to play goalkeeper? he said.

Klueg, 39, father of three, isn’t the only one playing hockey closer to home this winter. Having been kept out of the rinks due to the pandemic, hockey parents turned to their backyards, where they repurposed old barns, expanded previous play areas, or purchased easy-to-assemble kits to keep their kids entertained. Some were particularly resourceful, spending a few hundred dollars at Home Depot and building from scratch. Others invested thousands in customizing rinks they 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 file lawsuits. Like-minded neighbors knocked down fences to share space for ice rinks, while others complained about the noise caused by pucks hitting wooden planks. With a high ice age, rink owners were inundated with requests for open skating times.

It’s almost like Prohibition-era speakeasy hockey, Klueg said. Beat in a certain way, come in.

But no matter how hard anyone was on her barn door in Hinesburg, Vt. Slaps, Rebecca Racine Keinath, 47, doesn’t allow outsiders into her new skating room. Last spring, she and her husband, Bart, thought their two children could stay out active all summer long, but they were concerned about what they would do in the cold months if no vaccine was available.

So they took measurements on their 74-year-old dairy barn. Drainage grooves in the ground floor concrete prevented them from building an ice rink at that level, but when they looked at the hayloft they thought they would play the game at a higher level. They built stairs, cleared much of the attic’s straw, and repaired holes in the wooden floor before laying new planks and a tarp, then flooding it when the temperature 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 installed a security camera. Visitors are only allowed in when the virus is better under control.

The cows may be rolling in their graves, but it warms me that this beautiful barn isn’t just going to be lost, Racine Keinath said. I like a little old with a little new.

Dylan Gastel, 24, learned to build an ice rink the old-fashioned way. He grew up in Lincoln, RI, and worked with his father to build outdoor courts. Every November they saw three weekends of plywood, hammer pin in the ground, and drill holes for screws. Eager to skate, Gastel sat in his high school classrooms refreshing the Weather Channels website to hear when the next cold front was coming. Once the water was frozen, he sometimes skated until 3am

The only time my mom let me go to school late was if I skated all night, he said.

He eventually went to Yale, majored in mechanical engineering, got a $ 1,000 entrepreneurial grant from a Yale program, developed the prototype ice rink that could be built in an hour, and started a backyard business in his dormitory. Gastels’ modular set consisted of lightweight plastic plates, connecting brackets, a liner and straps that held the system together. No tools were needed. In his freshman year, he said, he sold $ 1 million worth of rinks, which he doubled in his sophomore year.

Then the pandemic struck. When school districts and local governments shuttered indoor facilities, Gastel said, he saw sales soar in the same areas where families, schools and cities bought his ice rinks to offer outdoor options. In September, he predicted he would run out of supplies by Christmas due to accelerated demand.

To strengthen the supply chain, he traveled through the Midwest in the fall and winter to secure additional manufacturing sites and warehouses. In three months, the company expanded its production capacity by 500 percent.

I had to take those risks a bit, Castel said.

For many parents, their reward is watching their kids skate right outside their window. Robert Goldenberg, 46, had considered buying a swimming pool to give his family a break from the long time spent indoors over the summer. He decided not to, in part because he didn’t want to take space away from the ice rink that the family has used for many winters.

His two sons tried for a travel team in October, but the season was shelved before the final cuts were made. The sons, who are 15 and 18, have not returned to an indoor track, but are honing their skills at home in a suburb of Montreal.

To keep pucks from ending up in neighbor’s yards, Goldenberg added a plywood fence and a 10-foot mesh at the goal. But one January evening, he was in his second-floor office and heard a loud bang. His 15-year-old, Brett, had shot a puck that ricocheted off the crossbar and hit it through the window of the family’s dining room.

I didn’t expect it to go that far, said Robert Goldenberg.

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

I need to make sure my butts are covered up to where I don’t lose my house because someone had a severe concussion on my ice, said Cook, who offers visitors ice skates, in a variety of sizes, that he’s collected over the years.

To warn skaters of potential problems, Klueg places orange cones near soft spots on his ice. His house rules contain a ban on physical control.

Klueg has considered more renovations to its 13-acre lot. On his wish list is a 50 ton chiller with 8400 square feet of cooling mats that keep the ice frozen even when the temperature reaches 50 degrees. He estimated he put $ 10,000 into his rinks over the years.

In between shifts at a recent game, he saw his shed as a heated bay where he could park his ice-weather machine.

Next year, he said.

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