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Cool as ice

It's a brisk -17 C tonight, but the players are going hard, careening into the corners and rattling the boards as they jostle for a puck that insists on hiding in a forest of skates.

It's a brisk -17 C tonight, but the players are going hard, careening into the corners and rattling the boards as they jostle for a puck that insists on hiding in a forest of skates. Like snakes' tongues, the players' sticks seek the elusive disc until it squirts free and flees to the other end of the rink. The battle begins anew.

Welcome to hockey night at Lance Popke's place, an Akinsdale home with a deceptively wide backyard and a dream rink just seven steps from the back door.

Every Monday night during the winter a group of about six to 10 adult friends and family descend on the home for a game of pick-up shinny, regardless of the weather.

"Sometimes you think 'I don't want to play tonight,'" said family friend Chris Brady, 34. "Once you get out here and start playing, you start having fun. It's like being a kid again."

It's the fourth year for the weekly ritual and the rink, which began with a simple flooding of the backyard. The second year brought simple boards two feet high.

"The year after, we lost our minds," Popke said.

The rink is now a full-fledged hockey rink with boards fashioned from old bleachers bought from a Grande Prairie school and industrial floodlights that rival those of Commonwealth Stadium. At 32-by-64 feet (9.8-by-19.5 metres) it's only about a third the size of a regulation rink, but it's huge by backyard standards.

Popke had a rink as a kid and he likes having one now that he's grown up, for himself and his three boys.

"With winter you find yourself closed off and not able to do a lot outside," said the 31-year-old restaurateur.

"Hockey's a big part of the Alberta culture, I think, and to be able to come home and step outside and play around on the rink a little bit is a huge thing. It allows our family to experience some outdoor activities without having to go too far from home."

Future Gretzkys?

We've all seen the old home video footage of future hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky tooling around his backyard rink at two years of age. As kids, Gretzky and countless other future pros spent hours on backyard rinks having fun and developing the skills that allowed them to excel in organized hockey. While some parents still view backyard rinks as a tool for player development, others view them as a viable substitute for organized play.

"My son doesn't play competitive hockey. That's sort of the reason why I did this," said Woodlands resident Brent Heit, 37.

Nestled among the mature trees in his backyard and fringed only by a low snow bank, Heit's modest rink feels like a pond. There's even an ice trail that meanders around a pair of towering spruce trees to provide a skating loop for non-hockey-players.

Heit's oldest son, who is 10, uses the rink regularly along with a couple neighbourhood boys. Otherwise, it's there for occasional family use.

"I have four other kids so bringing them to rinks was sort of troublesome," Heit said.

It's a similar situation over in Pineview, where Ed Mueller's 19-by 50-foot rink is a cross between a hard-core hockey facility and a quaint pond-like refuge.

Like Popke, Mueller has fond memories of a backyard rink he made himself as a youth. "I had so much fun skating when I was a kid, so I figured I'd do it when I had kids," he said.

His three boys aren't in organized hockey either, and they aren't inclined to log hours every day on the rink, which competes with electronic pastimes for their attention.

"I get them away from TV and Xbox, plus I get a little bit of exercise," Mueller said.

"Here, they can just put their skates on, skate for half-an-hour and come back in. It's not an all-day thing."

Equipment and tweaking

Backyard ice gurus have more help than ever these days in the form of store-bought gear and online tips.

In previous years, Mueller has used a bag system that's sold in stores and online. This involves flooding a plastic bag then, once it's frozen, peeling back the top covering to reveal a smooth ice surface. One downside to this method is it is single-use and must be bought each season.

This year Mueller went with the "swimming pool method." He bought a kit that includes a plastic liner that works like a swimming pool bladder to hold the water until it freezes. The kit also includes brackets to hold up pieces of plywood for boards.

A very common piece of equipment is a T-shaped flooding unit that can be bought in stores or made at home. The units use PVC pipe with holes in the crosspiece to allow water to flow out. The unit attaches to a garden hose and a piece of fabric or carpet drags behind to smooth the water as the unit is dragged across the ice surface, mimicking the flooding action of a professional Zamboni.

Rink guys always seem to be on the constant lookout for better stuff and scheming ways to tweak their rinks each year.

Even though the Popke rink is large, his step-dad is hoping to squeeze a couple of more feet of length into the yard while Popke himself is imagining speakers for music and netting to keep pucks out of neighbours' yards.

Heit is happy with his low-key rink but is considering some low boards so the boys can perform bounce passes.

"I compete with my brother-in-law in Winnipeg," he grinned. "He's got a baseball diamond behind his house so he's got an advantage."