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Home ice advantage

Backyard skating rinks sharpen skills, family fun

Lucas Hoffman, 3, of Westborough gets up from the ice after a fall while skating last month with family and friends on the backyard rink set up by his father, Dennis. Lucas Hoffman, 3, of Westborough gets up from the ice after a fall while skating last month with family and friends on the backyard rink set up by his father, Dennis. (JOHN BOHN/GLOBE STAFF)
By Susan Chaityn Lebovits
Globe Correspondent / February 20, 2007

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Just before midnight on a recent Sunday, Ralph Isberg stood in his 11-degree backyard wielding a "home-boni." The broomlike contraption, which attaches to a hose, is a hand-held version of a Zamboni, used to resurface ice skating rinks.

Isberg, a professor of molecular and microbiology at Tufts University School of Medicine, is part of a growing subculture of home ice rink owners so dedicated they've got their own Yahoo! Group and have been known to avoid going out of town in order to get their rinks up and running.

"We look at the 15-day AccuWeather forecast, then plan our whole life around this," Isberg said.

For the past three years he's set aside Thanksgiving weekend to assemble the wooden framework of his backyard rink. Two weeks before the cold sets in, he lays out the plastic liner. Then he waits.

"Last year it rained the next day and I got an inch of water," he said. And this winter, the cold temperatures got off to a late start .

Isberg's modest and uneven Newton backyard has been completely usurped by the 21-by-54-foot skating rink. The thickest ice is 12.5 inches at one end; the thinnest, at the other end of the yard, is 3 inches deep.

It all started when Isberg's wife, Carol Kumamoto (also a research scientist), joked with her husband about their sunless backyard. "We can't grow grass back there, but we can grow ice," she told him. Their hockey-playing children -- 12-year-old Max and 9-year-old Robyn -- think the rink is the greatest thing ever.

Home ice rinks can range from $300 for some 2-by-8's and a plastic liner to more than $8,000 for a rink with poured concrete and 4-foot-high walls to keep pucks corralled. Either way, homeowners often find out they're worth the cost. The rinks usually become neighborhood gathering spots.

"Unless you go to a Saturday free skate in one of the public rinks, it's really hard to get ice time," said Dennis Hoffman, 43, of Westborough. "Ice time is incredibly expensive and very rare."

This is Hoffman's third year as his family's evening and weekend rink master, shoveling and resurfacing at odd hours of the night when the temperatures are at their lowest. His days are spent as the vice president of enterprise solutions for a division of EMC Corp.

"Making your own [rink] is a way to have some fun with your family," Hoffman said, "and if you have a kid playing hockey, it gives them more ice time to work on their game or play around with the puck." His 9-year-old son, Ryan, is a "first-year squirt" on the Triboro Titans.

Tommy McGrath, 43, of South Boston can attest to the high cost of getting on the ice. The glass worker volunteers at Murphy Memorial Skating Rink on Day Boulevard. Since cuts in state funding took effect, he said, ice time has become a precious commodity. The rink, which once opened at 7 a.m., now opens at 1 p.m. Renting it out costs $180 for 50 minutes.

David Oberlander, 42, a civil engineer in Mansfield, says he gets better at resurfacing his home rink every year, despite the whims of Mother Nature.

"The first year, many times I was up all night trying to get the ice right," he said. "One day last year I think I shoveled for eight hours straight during a big storm as the ice had just frozen."

The king of the backyard rink around here may be Jack Falla, 62, of Natick, a Boston University sports journalism professor and author of the book "Home Ice: Reflections of Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds." The collection of essays is based upon his Natick home rink, which is in its 24th season.

Falla's connection to hockey began at the age of 10 after his mother died. It was the middle of winter in February 1955. "There was no grief counseling or anything like that," he said. "I spent more time in the children's section of the Winchester library than probably anyone should spend, and did a lot of skating. In retrospect, it was probably a way of coping with the grief."

What began as a home rink for his children grew into a neighborhood legacy. Falla said next winter he and his wife, Barbara, plan to host a party in celebration of their 25th year -- perhaps with a black-tie event on the ice -- as a last hurrah. There's talk of building a rink for his grandchildren who live in Maine.

"The single most important thing about a backyard rink is that it connects you with the people you love," Falla said. "That's why I've kept doing it -- even after my kids moved away."

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com