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Putting the pandemic blues on ice

The colder-than-usual weather and absence of a January thaw was helpful to the pandemic-led boom in backyard and community skating rinks. Not only are more of us getting out on our skates, we’re getting more creative in our pursuit of ice time.

Take, for instance, Ian Atfield and his “Homeboni.”

The device was created by the Elmira man as a way for his neighbour to better maintain a backyard rink.

“Any plumber can look at this and be like, ‘oh, I can make that up pretty quickly.’ He had a rink out there, and one night I said, ‘I’m going to surprise him with this,’” said Atfield.  “It beats standing out there with the hose and just spraying water on it, that’s for sure.”

After a few prototypes, Atfield created the sturdy Homeboni, which was made up of copper pipes and a long towel at the end to help clear snow off the ice while creating a smooth layer for skating, with water supplied via an attachment to a standard garden hose. Atfield noted the Homeboni helps save time, as it can level out ice quickly.

The device comes in handy after the rink is set up – in this case with a tarp at the bottom – and the ice set.

“This is for more after, when you already have it set in place, then you can smooth it out after. His rink’s about 55 feet by 25 feet and he does two floods in about 25 to 30 minutes. By the time he’s starting to do the other side, it’s starting to freeze up.  He does one quick flood then waits about 10 minutes and does another one. He’s out there for about half an hour and gets two fresh layers of ice on it,” Atfield explained of his neighbour’s work.

Atfield made a batch of 10 Homebonis last year, selling all of them online through Kijiji or Facebook.

“I’ll probably just make them every year for people that want them. There’s a plastic one you can get at your local box stores, and I just didn’t think it was durable. This copper one is going to last 10 years, no problem. It just hooks up to a 3/4-inch garden hose, so your standard garden hose, the towel has velcro on it so it can be taken off, so you can leave this outside if you wanted to and just bring the towel inside so it’s not frozen. But even once it is frozen, the water starts going through and it just thaws very quickly anyway. It’s really simple.”

Skating has become a favourite winter hobby for Atfield, who plays beer-league hockey and is now teaching his young son how to lace up his skates.

Backyard rink making has become an increasingly popular hobby as lockdowns over the last two years prevented many of us from doing anything indoors, and parents were looking for things to do with their family.

“This winter, the gyms are closed and hockey arenas are closed and so on – there are not a lot of outlets for kids to have sports activity. Backyard rinks or neighbourhood rinks, those are fantastic things to have,” said Robert McLeman, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he’s also co-director of  RinkWatch, an organization that tracks the prevalence of outdoor skating rinks as a way of measuring climate change.

“I would say probably twice as many people – this is just an estimate, it’s not based on data –  twice as many people are building rinks now than before the pandemic. I think it’s because there’s a little bit of slight competitiveness amongst the rink-making parents out there to see who can do a nice job.”

Along with the number of rinks, the organization also looks at the motivation behind the creation of backyard rinks.

“We did a study a few years ago where one of our graduate students interviewed people who participated in our program and asked them. essentially, ‘why do you do this?’ People were saying kind of the same thing. ‘We just like to be out there and flooding it; cold night, fresh air and so on,’ and then satisfaction – the next day when the kids come screaming out there with their skates on.”

Launched almost a decade ago, RinkWatch collects information about outdoor ice rinks and their conditions from various people across North America.

“If you have a backyard rink, you can just go onto our site, you pin its location on our map, and then you can just volunteer data about your rink throughout the winter. “

McLeman noted the winter conditions for ice rinks have been fairly average this year with most people not starting their skate until the first week in January when temperatures allow for better ice. Some were able to skate earlier if they had installed a plastic liner, which has grown in popularity as classic ice rinks sometimes don’t survive long in winter anymore.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, what you see is people are investing in large plastic tarps or liners to put down inside the boards because the reality, is especially here in Waterloo Region, we do get these sort of midwinter thaw periods – late-January, early-February where temperatures go up above zero for a few days. And so what happens is your classic rink, you lose the water from it in those conditions. A lot of people are now investing in the big plastic liners and that way at least the water stays put and then they can get it going much more quickly when the cold temperatures return,” said McLeman.

“The classic rink doesn’t necessarily survive the winter anymore because of the variable temperatures.”

Plastic rinks can range close to a hundred dollars, most municipal ice skating rinks won’t have them, noted McLeman, since they tend to get roughed up by the skates.

“They tend to get beat up pretty easily, the plastic liners, if they’re not cared for, so you only get one winter out of it.”

Rinkwatch has also seen a rise in the creation of devices such as Atfield’s Homeboni over the last couple years, with McLeman saying he’s excited to see what else parents come up with in the future.

“With the pandemic especially, there’s a whole homeboni culture that has come up; I guess people have more time to spend in their garages, crafting things.”

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