By Ross Forman – Manuel “Manny” Ballestero, an assistant coach for the Warren Township High School girls’ hockey team, is in his third year building an outdoor rink (ODR) at his home in suburban Wadsworth, a true labor of love, countless gallons of water … and many lessons learned.
His first ODR, for instance, Ballestero eyeballed a level spot in his yard, but, well, his eyes were a bit out of focus. When he filled the rink, he only had ice on about half the rink. Also, he did not have a fence around the rink, so when the ice was melting in the spring, a deer walked through the water and punctured the liner in several places.
Last winter, Ballestero leveled an area, put a temporary fence up, along with boards. But then he battled Mother Nature. It did not seem like it was cold enough, so he regretfully did not put the liner in, then, of course, it got cold and it was too late.
Welcome to the winter of 2020-21. “Around Thanksgiving I started to get everything set up: fence in, boards up, liner in,” Ballestero said. “I patched the liner where I needed to, then started to fill it.”
His 40-by-80-foot rink takes about 20,000 gallons of water, and … bingo! “This is my first successful ice,” he said.
“Both of my kids played in high school; my daughter also played in college,” Ballestero said. “I started coaching for the Warren girls’ team when my daughter reached that level. I never had the space to put in an ODR at that time. After the kids went on to college, my wife and I bought a farmette, so we have chickens, ducks and geese … and space for an ODR.”
Manuel Ballestero, Jr., 26, played for Warren High School and is now a sergeant in the U.S. Army, stationed in Savannah, Georgia. Amanda Ballestero, 24, played NCAA Division III hockey, then transferred to Davenport University and played her last three years of eligibility at the ACHA D1 level. Last year she was the captain of the team and is now at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, working on her master’s degree.
Dad is truly the coach at home.
“My rink is special because it is for anyone, and I feel like my rink is going to be constantly improved as I learn from previous mistakes,” Ballestero said. “My son was home over Christmas break, and he was able to skate (on the ODR); I also have had the Warren girls team skate on it, along with my daughter’s former college teammates, as well as guys who I work with, with their kids.
“As part of my rink setup, I installed a 20-by-8-foot steel shipping container at one end of the ice. That container serves two purposes; it helps so pucks don’t fly off on that end, and it also serves as a warming hut and storage for equipment. Through my years of coaching, I have tried to collect used equipment from players, whatever size it is. So now if someone new to hockey or skating wants to try it, they can come over and I have a bunch of different skates and hockey equipment that they can (use) for free.”
Ballestero said his annual cost, after the initial cost of the kit, is about $500 – money well-spent, he said, without hesitation.
Jonathan Schwartz, 7, skates for the Cyclones – and laces them up at his family’s ODR in Batavia, which is about 16-by-32 feet.
Their first-ever ODR is “a place to make those early hockey memories in the comfort of your own backyard,” said his mom, Jaclyn.
Their ODR was Jonathan’s birthday gift.
“We didn’t want his first year playing to be branded with COVID and games/practices being cancelled,” Jaclyn said. “We wanted his first hockey season to be memorable and tried to put a happy/positive spin on it by building our own rink at home.”
Jonathan and his younger brother, Evan, are outside at night, on their ODR, under the lights during snowfall.
“Next year, it’s a goal to go a little bigger (with our ODR) and add some netting down on one end to keep pucks in play,” Jaclyn said.
Jonathan has been practicing his stickhandling at home, as well as his skating and edge work.
AHAI Coach-in-Chief Jim Clare said ODRs are the perfect venue for skill development.
“There are obvious benefits to skating on an outdoor rink, or a pond, such as physical fitness and fun,” he said. “As a hockey coach, there are so many things that can help the kids in their hockey journey. One such advantage is unstructured play, giving the kids the ability to decide, without a coach, what will happen on the ice. The freedom to try new things, make mistakes, and try again without the pressures of a supervised practice. This assists in the creativity of the players when they return to the team practice. They have tried it on the (ODR) and now bring it to the team practice. It helps build their confidence as well.”
Clare said the ODRs allow youngsters the opportunity to work on specific drills without worrying about failing in front of their coach or teammates. “Whether it is stickhandling, skating, passing (or) shooting, all these skill sets can be enhanced on the (ODR),” he said. “One advantage of outdoor rinks is they are usually smaller than a full sheet of ice. This naturally increases puck touches if they are playing a game with their friends. It also emulates our game, which is played in small areas all over the ice surface. A smaller surface increases the amount of decision-making a player has. The very nature of a smaller surface requires this.”
Most importantly, ODRs shoot the fun factor.
“Increasing the love of the game through having fun is paramount,” Clare said. “Outdoor rinks certainly assist in that goal.
“If you have access to a pond or outdoor rink, encourage your skater to take advantage of it, especially this season. It not only will help them mentally, but also their development as a player.”
Alex Dunn built a 25-by-50-foot ODR, his first-ever, at his home in Northbrook – and the rink has been a shot, literally, for skaters from the Bluehawks and the nearby Glenview Stars.
Carter Dunn, 12, is a center for the Bluehawks’ peewee AA team and a sixth-grader at Wood Oaks Junior High School. His older sister, Olivia, 14, an eighth grader at Wood Oaks, also is a leisure skate at their rink.
And what a rink it is, complete with light-up red and blue lines, customized rink banner and flags. Heck, even the family’s three dogs seem to enjoy watching the all-hours action.
“With everything going on (over the past year), spending much more time at home, it seemed like the perfect year,” to build the ODR, Alex said. “Seeing all the smiling faces enjoying the rink … they make the late-night shoveling and floods worthwhile.”
An EZ-Ice kit costs about $4,000 and many hooked on the ODR life also are members of the Backyard Ice Rink Facebook group, which has about 20,000 members.
John Blumenshine, 48, who lives in Bloomington, is one of the area’s most experienced ODR Dads. He’s been building such rinks for 10 years and this winter has a 68×48 skating area, which has welcomed many members of the Peoria Jr Rivermen Bantam AA team and the Bloomington Sharks varsity.
“The ODR is for (the kids) and I don’t allow coaching, which is a tough thing to do when you have coached for 13 years,” Blumenshine said.
Aidan Blumenshine, 17, a senior at Normal Community High School, is a center for the Sharks. Max Blumenshine 14, an eighth grader at Kingsley Junior High School, plays for the Peoria Jr. Rivermen.
“I try to make it better every year,” said the elder Blumenshine, who noted that his ODR has a 28-34-inch slope in grade, which makes the construction process a bit challenging.
ODR Tip: “You need to be patient; sometimes you are just at the mercy of Mother Nature. Check your slope, reinforce your deep end and buy a new liner each season.” – Alex Dunn
ODR Motto: “Off the Device & On the Ice.” – Alex Dunn
Zamboni: “I just use a hose and spray the rink with cold water on the shower setting; (that) seems to work fine. Next year, maybe I’ll attempt the ‘homboni.’”
Another Zamboni: “We made a Zamboni out of PVC pipe and old towels.” – Manny Ballestero
Ice-Cold Zamboni: “Beer in one hand, hose in the other.” – John Blumenshine
Building an ODR: “Don’t give up. Remember why you are doing it in the first place.” – Alex Dunn
Helpful Tips from Alex Dunn:
* “Do not try to eyeball a level spot in your yard, especially if you are going to install a larger rink. Finding a level spot is key.”
* “For a larger rink, wind can be an issue once the liner is installed. When you start filling, if it is windy and the liner unclips from the boards, you can lose a lot of water. Buy the foam bumpers that clip over the top of the boards; they help a lot.”
Thank you to everyone that shared their #ODR pictures and videos with us! Happy skating!
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.