'It's magical': On Duluth's backyard rinks, ice time means family time

From the tiny to the fancy, they’ve created wintertime community — and honed some pretty serious skating skills — for generations.

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Children skate on a backyard hockey rink.
From left, Greyson Martinson, Ollie Moseley, Connor Martinson and Haley Martinson skate on the Martinsons' backyard rink on Nov. 13, 2019, in Duluth. The Martinsons use a company called NiceRink to create their backyard hockey rink. The company supplies everything from the liner to contain the water to boards and resurfacers.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Editor’s note: Photojournalist Derek Montgomery has been chronicling the phenomenon of backyard ice rinks in Duluth since the fall of 2018. His photos from that project are part of this collaboration with MPR News reporter Dan Kraker.

Back in November, when an early cold snap hit northern Minnesota, and temperatures plummeted to the single digits, people grumbled.

But not Bart and Lindsey Martinson. Instead, they connected boards around the edge of their backyard, lined the space with thick plastic, and flooded it with a garden hose. Then they threw a birthday party for their 6-year-old son, Greyson.

About 20 kids crammed on to the rink, 44 feet long by 36 feet wide, some in boots, some in skates, playing with at least a dozen pucks, shouting and cheering. Music blared from a radio. Moms and dads chatted along the sides. It was a scene of happy, frozen chaos.

“It’s magical,” said Lindsey Martinson. “Really, it is.” It connects the neighborhood. It’s terrific exercise for their three kids. And it brings their family together, she said. “Winter’s long in Duluth. And, honestly, the cold weather doesn't really affect us because of this rink. We are always out here.”

Two children play hockey.
Connor Martinson (left) and Anna Stellmaker skate under the lights and a steady snow in the Martinsons' backyard rink on Nov. 13, 2019, in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

For generations, kids in northern Minnesota have honed their skating skills on these sheets of ice that appear seemingly overnight in empty neighborhood spaces and flat backyards.

Some are almost regulation-size; others are shoehorned onto tiny city lots.

For generations, they’ve been framed by scrap wood and plastic from the hardware store — and nowadays, many are built from pre-made kits that can cost thousands. Materials aside, the spirit remains the same.

“It's just fun to be able to come out and skate whenever you want,” said 10-year-old Haley Martinson, as she squeezed a pair of hand warmers to get the heat going.

Haley’s dad, Bart Martinson, grew up playing hockey on a small backyard rink in Virginia, Minn., about an hour north of Duluth on the Iron Range. There were no boards around the rink his dad built, only snowbanks.

But the idea four years ago to build a rink for their family came from Haley’s mom. Lindsey showed Bart pictures of backyard rinks their friends around Duluth were building and posting on social media.

“Honestly, it was probably 9 o'clock at night,” she recalled. “He looked at the pictures, and he went and rounded up a bunch of wood and that night was making a hockey rink out of boards.”

But he quickly learned that building a rink wasn’t as easy as it looked on Facebook. He didn’t level out his backyard that first winter before he turned on the hose.

“By the time we had the rink filled up,” he said, “the far corner down there near that shed had 3 feet of ice, and this end here had about 4 inches. But we had a rink.”

The next year, he spent about $2,000 on a rink kit made by a Wisconsin company, and ever since, they've been flooding a rink, largely for the convenience.

“You don't have to pack your bags and haul all your gear,” said Bart Martinson. “You've got all the stuff in the garage, they can put their skates on in the warm garage, and mom and dad can be in the house or be on the ice with them.”

‘Is the rink open?’

Families find that if they build an outdoor rink, the neighborhood kids will flock there.

"We get texts every day, like, ‘Is the rink open?’” said Keri Saline, whose backyard rink is a few miles from the Martinsons’. “We always have the open-door policy here. People are in and out all the time.”

Saline and her husband, Patrick Finnegan, first built their rink three winters ago out of recycled garage door sections. It’s steadily grown each winter since, occupying more and more of their small backyard. Next winter, they say, they may flood a portion of their driveway.

Finnegan was an accomplished hockey player at Duluth East High School, and played semipro for several years. He’s tried not to push his three boys too hard into the sport. But he said his oldest, 5-year-old Shea, has the bug.

"This is his third year on his backyard rink,” he said, as Shea wove in and out of a line of pucks set up on the ice, firing a shot off the post. “He's come a long way, I guess you'd say."

Shea had just played the first two games of organized hockey at a neighborhood park a couple miles away. After five hours there, he came home, put his skates on again and played in his backyard. His mom says he plays with his 3-year-old brother every night after dinner.

"I watch right there from the window and they play until 10 at night,” she said. “Our neighbors hear pucks going back and forth."

It seems dreamy — in a cold, northern Minnesota kind of way. Saline is surprised it doesn't kill the grass. But there are challenges. They accidentally tore the liner this year, shoveling 2 feet of snow that fell before they could fill the rink with water.

Sometimes they're up past midnight spraying fresh water on the rink to resurface the ice. And it's a chore to dismantle in the spring.

"We'll be out here with the kids’ wagon, taking huge chunks of ice, driving it down the driveway and putting it in the street,” Saline said. They do it to keep the ice from melting into the neighbors' yards.

But the payoff, she said, is worth it.

“Without a doubt.”

‘It’s a battle’

Dylan Mills grew up playing hockey in Duluth on the backyard rink his father froze every winter for him and his sister — even though they lived only a half-block away from a big neighborhood rink and warming house.

Now 41, Mills helps maintain that very neighborhood rink for his kids’ hockey teams, and knows the amount of work that’s required to maintain the ice. “I can’t fathom why we needed a rink in our backyard,” he said.

Still, he treasures the memories of playing there, skating as a young boy, and playing informal, pickup boot hockey games with his high school teammates on Sunday afternoons. Boot hockey is just like ice hockey, but it’s played on the ice in regular winter boots instead of skates.

"We'd come at noon and probably have eight of us,” he said. During breaks in the play, “my mom, she’d have hot dogs and fruit, and then chocolate chip cookies.” They’d play until it got dark, and then turn on the lights and play even later.

As he got older, they built fences 15 feet high on either side of the yard to prevent pucks from flying into neighbors’ houses. “We must have paid them off,” he said, “because I don’t remember them ever complaining.”

Mills went on to win a state championship at Duluth East. Then he captained the University of Minnesota team, and played several years of semipro hockey. Now, he's an assistant coach back at Duluth East. The best players, he said, develop a joy for the game playing on their own, in an unstructured environment.

"As a coach, you can teach, you can teach, you can teach. But the really good players,” he said, they learn on their own. And there's probably no better place to learn than a backyard rink."

The backyard rink obsession extends far beyond hockey-crazed Duluth and northern Minnesota.

A couple years ago, John Greco helped start a Facebook page for backyard rink enthusiasts. Now the group has almost 10,000 members around the United States, Canada and Europe. They swap advice on how to build and maintain the rinks, even in warm-weather states like Virginia.

Greco said the biggest challenge for rink-builders is weather. “It’s a battle,” he said, because “when you’re building a rink, you’re trying to do something that was never intended for your backyard.”

He said some people are switching to synthetic ice made out of lubricated plastic so they can skate year-round.

Most people still rely on Mother Nature to maintain the ice, including Greco. But where he lives, about an hour outside New York City in New Jersey, it hasn't gotten cold enough yet for his rink to freeze naturally this year.

In northern Minnesota, it’s still plenty cold for the real thing. And even though it’s a ton of work to maintain the 20-by-40 rink in their backyard, when Kari Saline is begging her two sons to come inside at 10 p.m, puck ricocheting against the boards, she knows it’s worth it.

“We love it, that’s exactly why we do it. It’s just a fun way the kids to get together and get through this long, cold winter.”

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