Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Everlasting memories in the great outdoors

The sheet of ice built by NHL Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig at Fenway Park is certain to be the most famous temporary rink in New England, but it is not even close to being the most important. Not by a long shot.

This is not meant to diminish the grandeur of the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, but a nationally televised game that produces a winner and a loser -- one of 1,230 such in an NHL regular season -- is different than a sheet of ice that produces laughter and memories, forges hopes and dreams, bonds families and friends, captures innocence and mayhem.

A few such outdoor rinks can be found scattered throughout New England, logically a territory with frigid winters that can sustain homemade backyard rinks from December through March. For many of those that take on the endeavor of nailing together 2-by-4's, unraveling a sheet of tarpaulin, turning on a hose for hours and, for the more adventurous, installing outdoor lighting, the inspiration does not come from a love of professional hockey, but of family values.

The commissioner, if you will, of this legion of outdoor rink builders is the late Jack Falla. Their version of Dan Craig is Mother Nature. There is no scorekeeper.

"It all goes back to Jack Falla," said Scott Millin, 41, a resident of North Chelmsford, Mass. "Hockey is a big part of my life. Each season I purchase the NHL Center Ice package, but during the lockout year NHL games on television were not an option, so I decided to read more. A friend I play hockey with suggested I read the book, 'Home Ice.' I just loved it. It's about much more than hockey and skating. It brought me back to my childhood, and the only skating I did as a kid was on a pond behind my house. The book made me want to be a kid again, and that's saying something. So if Jack could build a rink in his backyard to capture that feeling, I decided I could do it too.

"The first year, my rink was a disaster, and I couldn't skate on it. The next year it came out much better. Now I'm on Year 4 of successful skating. So, my inspiration was Jack's story."

Falla, a Boston University professor who covered the NHL for Sports Illustrated in the 1980s, passed away on Sept. 14, 2008. A resident of suburban Natick, Mass., he was 62. Though he wrote about NHL stars Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy, Falla's most famous subjects were his own family, and his favorite arena was the Bacon Street Omni, the rink he built every year in his own backyard for his loved ones starting in 1982.

In 2000, Falla published "Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds," a collection of essay's that revolve around his rink and family. It was one of five books he wrote about hockey, and for many it became their bible of sorts.

Falla's son, Brian, is one of hundreds of members of a Yahoo! group called Backyard Rink, an online community of avid and novice rink builders that share Jack Falla's passion and some of which want what Falla had. "Brian picked up the mantle for Jack since his passing and has become more active in the group," Millin said. "He is very active in posting messages and answering question. I get the sense he's carrying on his father's passion for outdoor rinks."

Millin and Joe Proulx, another rink builder, have never met Brian in person -- Millin and Proulx have never met each other, though they are acquaintances through the Yahoo! group -- but have received nothing but encouragement in their quest to capture what Jack had.

"I've been playing hockey since I was four, and my dad played as did most of my family," said Proulx, 29, of Hooksett, N.H., an hour drive north of Boston. "I played in high school and college, then got married in 2002 and had a son. My son wanted to play, and I have a very understanding and supportive wife. So I began searching around the internet and stumbled upon the online group. I wrote an introduction and an hour later I got an email from Jack himself. I was shocked and surprised. Any questions I had those first few months he and the group were there to answer.

"I'm an avid reader, so I picked up a couple of Jack's books. I researched him and his family, and he incorporated his family and his rink into most of his writing. Instantly I shared a bond with him after reading his work. He wanted to share hockey with his family and his family with hockey and invited anyone who was around to be a part of that. I was affected more by his passing than anyone I had never actually met."

Others who will never get the chance to meet Jack Falla are Millin's children Caroline, 13, and Danny, 11, and Proulx's son R.J., 3. That they will grow up skating on their own backyard rinks, constructed lovingly by their fathers, is the legacy that will keep Jack Falla's memory alive. And perhaps one day an NHL jersey with the last name of Millin or Proulx will become a best-seller. But if not, you're not likely to hear any complaints because the essence of the backyard rink is the youthful joy it brings.

"Danny plays organized hockey, and I play in an adult league," Millin said. "One of the best things about having your own rink is that there is no structure. At games and practices there are whistles, blue lines, rules to follow, and an emphasis on winning, and that's great. It's wonderful watching your child skate and progress as a player and learn the game of hockey. But on a backyard rink, it's about fun. We don't purposely work on our shot or technique, we just play.

"My son and three of his buddies were out there for four hours on a day when it was bitter cold, but they didn't feel a thing because they were having so much fun and were constantly moving. Skating on an outdoor rink is hockey in its simplest form. At the end of the day it's never about winning or losing.

"My daughter doesn't play organized hockey, but Caroline sometimes grabs a stick and skates with us or skates on the rink with her friends. She turns on the radio in the shed next to the rink and they skate around, laugh, and enjoy being outside in the winter time. They are just out there to have fun and to be with each other. One of the things that I loved about Jack's book is the message that it's about being with the one's you love that matters most."

This winter, Millin got the earliest start in his rink building career. After dropping the liner and flooding, his children were skating by Dec. 19. At its widest, the "Millin Four-em" is 30 feet wide and 45 feet long. A friend donated a section of hockey boards that make up one end of the ice sheet, and it has some netting ("to not hit the SAAB," Millin said."). The rest is a 2-by-12 frame structure, and the ice sits on shrink wrap, the same stuff used to cover boats for the winter. The rink includes three industrial lights for night skating but also has some of the Christmas variety.

Millin, who said he had to build a slight retaining wall and level the yard to make his outdoor rink a reality, estimates the annual cost of materials for constructing and maintaining the rink is $250.

"Some people get into the technical aspects of when to flood and when to put down the liner," Millin said. "That's not as important to me. I'm flying by the seat of my pants. I'm in it for the more special things; the people who use it."

Proulx, who is in his second year of building his own rink -- "603 Rink at Hooksett", caught the bug via "Home Ice" and a documentary called "Pond Hockey," in which Falla and his wife were interviewed. "I never met them, but I feel close to them," Proulx said.

His 35 by 50 foot rink is built over an old horse riding ring that came with his property. It has 12-inch high boards around the perimeter and is held together with a combination of wooden stakes and rebar, screws and bolts, with netting behind the goal on one end.

"It's pretty bare bones as far as the boards are concerned," Proulx said. "It probably takes about 6,000 gallons of water to make. I fill it the week before Christmas. A giant truck from a pool water company pulls up to the house. After the flood it takes about five to six days to freeze."

Proulx played throughout high school and two years at Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass. Growing up in a hockey family, the love of the game was always there. But at 29, his emotions toward hockey have swayed. "I lean toward the outside stuff as I get older," Proulx said. "In college, I was getting burned out with playing. My father was a big hockey guy, but we didn't have an outdoor rink. Now as I get older, I see the beauty of just going outside to play. It never gets old and there's no structure.

"I've read many stories and it seems to me that more than half of the NHLers had been brought up on outdoor rinks. We all get dressed up from head to toe and go out and shovel the rink and do maintenance. I want to give my son the benefit of having that outside rink. It's a side of hockey that I really didn't know growing up.

"The strange thing too is, I was brought up in a big hockey family and even they don't quite understand what I'm doing, shoveling four nights a week. They think I'm crazy. You can't understand until you do it yourself, spend six hours on a Sunday with your wife and son, what it means to play outside and have your own rink.

"Actually, we're looking to move a few towns over, to a better school district. I said to my wife, Meaghan, 'If we end up with the perfect house and there's not enough room for a rink, we may not be able to do it again.' She looked at me and said, 'That's not an option.' She recognized how important this is to me. Our son loves it, he's our star. He's ear to ear in smiles and he can't skate yet. He pushes a chair with his equipment on. He can stand up, and I'm hoping this will be the winter he can take a few strides. I was skating when I was four, so he's got some time on me."

Millin was raised in Rowley, Mass. and learned to skate on a pond in the backyard of his home. He tells a story that appears cosmically connected to what is happening in his life today, and one that seems highly improbable to ever happen again.

"My dad was a minister and the day we moved into our new home in Rowley was a bitter cold night in January. I was about two," Millin recalled. "There was a man-made pond behind the church and it was being christened by the town that evening. The story, through my parents, is that a number of Boston Bruins came by to skate on it, including Johnny Bucyk, and nearly the entire town turned out to see them. This was in 1972, the heyday of the Bruins. My parents thought all the people were there to welcome them to town, but they were really there to see the Bruins.

"I've since gone back to Rowley and tried to research this event. I couldn't find anything at the local library, and writing a story about it is another project that I want to get to. So I like to say that the whole outdoor skating thing has been in my blood and in my mind since that night."

Proulx and two friends share four season tickets for the Bruins. Having the Winter Classic come to Boston is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and Proulx recognizes that, they all did. So to decide the fate of the tickets, the three friends held a drawing to decide which two owners would get two tickets each for this special contest. Proulx drew the short straw.

"I am a die-hard B's fan, I would have loved to go," Proulx said. "But I'm not at all upset that I get to spend the morning on my rink. Later on we'll go inside and watch the game together. I have the best consolation prize of the three, and had I ended up at Fenway, I wouldn't have heard R.J. scream out, 'That's Michael Ryder, ' whenever any Bruin was on the screen."

After the Winter Classic on Friday, the Bruins and Flyers are certain to be asked about their favorite moments of the day, the memories they'll cherish from playing outdoors likely for the first time in their adult lives. But one team will win and one will lose, and probably not all will be warm and fuzzy and filled with nostalgia. This is their job. When Millin's backyard rink is filled with children, it's a whole 'nother world from what's happening at Fenway.

"There's nothing like when the kids arrive to skate on the rink," Millin said. "They spill out of the car, don’t say a word to my wife Debbie or myself, and get down to business putting on their skates and helmets. Then they just skate and skate. Nobody ever wants to come inside and they rarely stop to drink or eat -- we have even given them bottles of water with straws so they do not have to remove their helmets. I love to hear their laughter and shouts. Skating on the backyard rink consumes them, and when it is time to come inside it's always too soon. The backyard rink is more than just about making my own sheet of ice each winter. It's about making memories."

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