I could have been somebody instead of a hack, which is what I am. That’s what I say to myself en route to the ice rink. It’s not that I can’t skate or shoot; I just haven’t learned to play hockey with chutzpah.
I might have, if my parents hadn’t swamped me with extracurriculars in our overachieving New York City suburb. Hockey practice, to my mind, was an athletic variation on the piano lesson. Even as the 6-foot-3 captain of my high school hockey team, I didn’t apply myself. When I started at Middlebury College in 2003, I had too much going on to call the coach.
Now 25, I usually arrive late, with half-sharpened skates, for men’s-league games at Leddy Park Arena. Drinking beer in the locker room afterward, I feel satisfied in a dull way, as if I’ve just filed my tax returns. Vermont natives, by contrast, radiate a natural enthusiasm for the sport that I can’t fake.
What drives their passion? The late hockey writer Jack Falla suggests that authentic pucksters are weaned in the outdoors. “My backyard rink makes my life better,” Falla asserts in his 2008 book Open Ice: Reflections and Confessions of a Hockey Lifer. “And merely looking out the kitchen or den windows at the rink takes me back to my childhood, when most of my skating was outdoors on ponds and lakes.”
Outdoor ice is inherently cooler. It is gritty and uneven. It tests your mettle. At least, that is what I had learned from movies. The nearest pond to my parents’ two-car garage was filled with geese and almost never froze. In 1996, my dad flooded our backyard porch, but I bumped into my brother on the small rink.
Last winter, I realized I had gone a quarter century without playing a proper winter’s worth of pond hockey. I resolved to take my game outside.
My first stop is Deputy State Auditor George Thabault’s backyard rink. The 52-by-72-foot surface lies at the end of a Colchester cul-de-sac and strikes me as a hockey buff’s field of dreams: Ringed by hand-painted plywood boards, the rink features 100-watt lights, benches, goals, a fire pit and a mesh contraption for catching stray slappers.
Thabault, 59, greets me wearing an oversized Montréal Canadiens jersey. He says this rink has been open since 2000, when his kids were teenagers. His neighbors reimburse him the $500 he pays every two years for a new 60-by-200-foot plastic tarp. Contractor buddies leveled his ice and straightened his boards.
Thabault never played organized hockey, but he skates with a confident stride honed over years of outdoor games. When I hit his ice, I slide him a puck on his way to the net. Goal. Thabault says playing outdoor hockey a few times a week ensures he doesn’t catch cold. What a man, I think.
But later on, Thabault reveals that he’s concerned about his rink’s future. A few years ago, kids would play all night. Now his kids attend college at Ithaca and Wesleyan, and local students are dropping by less frequently. “Growing up in Winooski, there was always a rink around, and you’d go out for a few hours after supper,” he says with a sigh. “For some of these kids, the time commitments are numerous.”
“What are you going to do?” I ask. Thabault says his wife wants to start having a “no-sticks” session for nonplayers. As if. Thabault says he’s thinking of advertising this backyard rink at a local bus stop. I can’t tell if he’s serious. But I’m sure there are livelier Vermont skating scenes waiting to be discovered.
A few weeks later, I call Damian Renzello, an East Montpelier entrepreneur who makes his living off pond hockey. Renzello owns Porta-Rinx, a company that exports backyard rinks and mini Zambonis to 34 states and several foreign countries, including Canada, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mexico. He tells me that 40 or 50 of his 600 domestic rinks can be found in Vermont. Would I care to swing by his workshop?
Renzello lives in a modest, vinyl-sided house near the intersection of Routes 2 and 14. When I arrive on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the chatty 39-year-old wears a black San Jose Sharks jumpsuit, and his face looks incongruously tan. That’s because Renzello has just returned from Mexico City, where local authorities paid him to build a refrigerated 100-by-80-foot outdoor rink — and adorn it with Mexico’s national colors.
As we shuffle through his cluttered workshop, Renzello says he’s a natural inventor. Twelve years ago, his mother suggested that he invent a kit so hockey players could skate in their backyards sans hassle. “I says, ‘Ma, what a great idea!’ So I invented Porta-Rinx.” A few years later, Renzello was sick of flooding rinks with a garden hose. “I figured if somebody invented a baby Zamboni, they’d call it a ‘Bambini.’ So I did.”
I ask Renzello if he knows any good backyard rinks. He admits he can’t skate — “Isn’t it ironic?” — but that his neighbor, “Goober” Schaar Schmidt, owns a killer 50-by-100-foot Porta-Rinx. “Goob’s the guy when it comes to pond hockey,” Renzello assures me as we climb into a company SUV. His license plate reads ICETIME.
Schmidt’s house, a stately place nestled in a grove of evergreens, lies about 10 minutes from Renzello’s shop. We go straight for the backyard. Schmidt’s Porta-Rinx doesn’t have boards, but in other respects it is more professional than George Thabault’s. Its industrial floodlights, for example, dwarf Thabault’s 100-watt bulbs. And in contrast to his wooden benches and rustic fire pit, Schmidt has a warming room complete with leather couch, mini-bar and a kegerator — think Mystery, Alaska meets Swingers.
After lacing my skates on Schmidt’s couch, I step outside to find him drinking beer with Renzello at the edge of his rink. The two men are watching Schmidt’s adolescent son practice his wrist shot. (“Dad, guess what?” “What?” “ ’Member that thing I did in my game?” “Yeah.” “I just did it again.”) Schmidt, a fit guy wearing a blue anorak, tells me that he grew up skating on Lake Groton — aka Groton Pond — and that it was a pain to shovel. This $3195 Porta-Rinx, by contrast, is much easier to manage.
“This is the childhood I never had,” I say, thinking I may have found the perfect outdoor hockey experience. “This is the childhood I wish I had better,” Schmidt notes. Renzello beams like a proud matchmaker.
But then our host kills the mood. Backyard rinks are great, he says, but for all their perks, they don’t hold a candle to the real thing — ponds. Have I skated at Curtis Pond in Calais? “That,” Schmidt assures, “will give you the full effect.”
Curtis Pond is hard to find without a map. When I ask for directions at the Calais Town Clerk’s office, a secretary looks at me askance.
After a few twists and turns, I park beside the pond and grab my skates. An ice fisherman looks like
a bug from this distance. On a cleared-off portion near the pond’s southeastern shore, someone has planted red hockey nets and a handful of milk crates. Bingo.
“OK to play without permission?” I ask a guy passing on a tractor.
“Don’t know,” he says. “Worst that could happen is, you get kicked off.”
I plop down on a milk crate and lace my skates. The freshly flooded pond feels even crisper against my edges than Schmidt’s Porta-Rinx. Better still, coniferous trees and a windswept plain lend this scene a rugged quality — I feel as though I’m enduring a hockey version of the Siberian training montage in Rocky IV.
Twenty minutes later, as I pause to watch my breath evaporate, a car pulls up to the pond. Out walks a fit guy with gray hair and a wide smile. I explain that I’m a reporter from Burlington “on assignment,” and that Curtis Pond is my last research site. The man introduces himself as Don Heise, the pond’s abutting neighbor and unofficial steward. I take off my skates, follow him to his house, and rest my feet beside his woodstove.
Turns out Heise, 61, is a painting contractor and hockey enthusiast who has been constructing homemade rinks since the late 1970s in North Fayston, Warren and Duxbury. “The older the kids got,” he explains with a laugh, “the bigger the rink got.”
Heise started maintaining Curtis Pond 15 years ago, when he and his family moved here from the Mad River Valley. Now the toddlers who once skated here play on Montpelier’s U-32 high school squad — and they keep coming back for more. Local residents helped finance Heise’s snowblower with proceeds from sales of the famous “Men of Maple Corner” naked calendar. Last season, the blower traveled a distance equivalent to a trip to Burlington.
As Heise talks, his son Coby taps on a computer beside a poster of Martin St. Louis, a University of Vermont hockey star — and Canadian pond-hockey enthusiast — who went on to play professionally in the National Hockey League. Coby, 33, tried out for the UVM team with St. Louis in the mid-1990s and says players who train outdoors tend to excel. Although the region has more indoor rinks today than when he was a kid, he adds, “You see a lot less creativity with the stick.”
Then I notice Coby’s 2-year-old son, Maddox, waddling to and fro beside the living room television. Apparently he is preparing to watch the Boston Bruins. As Curtis Pond reflects moonlight through a window, Heise says his grandson’s only pond-hockey experience so far has been walking around the ice in his boots pushing a milk crate. However, adds Coby, he and Maddox now live around the corner, “which pretty much guarantees that this guy is going to go skating all the time.”