For many of us, February is the cruelest month not just the shortest. Just when days are getting longer, a blast of Arctic air from Canada or a furry varmint in Pennsylvania reminds us there is plenty of winter left.

For 10-year-old Parker Smith, his 7-year-old brother Hunter, and a lot of their West Gardiner buddies, winter can’t last long enough. Cold weather means good ice on the rink in their backyard and good ice means hockey.

“You can just walk out to it and skate,” Parker said. “It makes the winter go a lot better than it would.”

Parker’s dad Vaughn built the rink last year and, as backyard rinks go, it’s fairly elaborate. It initially took 15,000 gallons of water to provide a base for the 45 x 82 foot surface, water he pumped from his neighbor’s small duck pond and his swimming pool. Smith resurfaces the rink about every night, pumping hot water from his house through a 5-foot Zamboni he built. He drags a piece of carpet behind the Zamboni to smooth the surface.

“Twenty minutes and I’m done,” Smith said. “Not much more than a long shower.”

The boards around the rink were originally at the Kennebec Ice Arena. Smith and some of his fellow coaches in the Gardiner Youth Hockey Association volunteered to take them down when the KIA put up new boards and he was able to salvage some of them.

“All it is is the plastic,” Smtih said.

Around the corner, down on the Collins Mills Road, John Hinkley, a friend and fellow youth hockey coach built his own rink this winter for his daughters Evelyn, 11, and Julia, 9. It’s a smaller version of Smith’s rink at 36 x 68 and both rinks feature lights and pond hockey goals. Hinkley and Smith each cleared land for their rinks.

“That was a little bit of work,” Smith said. “The building really went pretty quick.”

Hinkley put the wood from the trees he cleared to good use, building boards for the rink as well as stairs which lead down to the ice and also serve as bleachers. The collapse of the Kennebec Ice Arena last spring makes outdoor rinks a little more important but Hinkley said he “probably would have done it anyway.”

The Hinkleys and Smiths have spent a lot of time this winter at the Kents Hill’s Bonnefond Ice Arena, temporary home of Gardiner Youth Hockey, but there are only so many hours of ice time available. At home it’s free and unlimited.

“I practice almost every day,” Hunter said. “Passes and one-timers.”

The practice, like the games, is left to the kids.

“I try to make it fun,” Hinkley said. “I don’t coach them out there. “

West Gardiner is a hotbed of outdoor hockey. Smith lives near Fuller’s Pond, owned by Jim Fuller and long an outdoor venue. Dave Jamison, another Gardiner youth hockey coach, is sponsoring a “Grow the Game” session on the pond to introduce new kids to hockey. Not far away on the West Road, Will Hickey also has a pond he maintains for outdoor games.

Games at the Smith’s and Hinkley’s can involve four or six players or 10 or 12.

“We usually play every man skates,” Parker Smith said. “If we have a lot (of players) we’ll play subs.”

When the ice gets crowded Smith requires the players to wear full equipment to prevent injury. Sometimes Parker’s older sister invites her friends over just to skate. There’s nothing like the freedom of an outdoor skate, especially on a calm winter’s night.

“I’d rather play at night,” Parker said. “The lights are kind of cool playing under them.”

It’s not just about the kids, either. Both Hinkley and Smith play in adult hockey leagues and on Friday nights they get the ice at Smith’s rink.

“We call it the Friday night beer league,” Smith said. “We kick the kids off.”

This hasn’t been the best of winters for ice. Smith keeps a journal about the rink and last year skating began on Dec. 17 and ended March 15

“Last year we had more than 50 days of skating,” Smith said. “This year we’ve had half that.”

Mother Nature aside, both men feel the time and effort building and maintaining their rinks is worth it.

“That’s hockey at its best,” Hinkley said. “It’s a great sport even if kids can’t afford to go to the (indoor) rink. The first time I saw my kids skate on it, it was worth it.”

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638

[email protected]

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