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Chris Murphy, Published December 25 2012

Families in Moorhead provide home-ice advantage for their kids

Moorhead - After 72 hours of work – including two all-nighters –and more than $2,000 spent, Moorhead native Brian Gramer was finally able to watch his 7-year-old son, Matthew, walk the rubber pathway he laid out, press his skates to the ice he created and glide under the lights he lit in the backyard ice rink he built with his own two hands.

“It isn’t as smooth as Moorhead (Youth) Hockey Arena,” Matthew said as his skate felt for lumps in the ice. “Why are there bumps on here?”

Gramer could do nothing but sigh about it.

“Kids,” Gramer said. “All this just so the kids can walk out there and skate.”

Most sports really only require a ball. There’s no travel time or weather required to play catch in the backyard with a football or dribble a basketball in the driveway. But where is the young hockey player supposed to begin his or her journey with the sport? More and more parents in Moorhead are transforming their backyards into ice rinks for that very reason.

Iowa has its “Field of Dreams.” Moorhead has its ice of traditions.

“Growing up in Moorhead in Minnesota and playing hockey, I feel like there’s a pond hockey culture that’s unique to our area because of the weather,” said Brian’s brother Rob, who has had an ice rink in his backyard for the last six years for his 10-year-old son Luke and his 7-year-old son Joe, with his 2-year-old John possibly making his triumphant debut to the ice this year.

“It was part of my experience growing up and I wanted to try it with my kids. Once you do it, it gets in your blood, playing hockey in the purest form. Some of those winter nights are so quiet and it’s just you out there. It’s hard to describe, but there’s something about hearing your skates cutting the ice and puck hitting the boards on your rink.”

Brian is by no means a big hockey fan like his brother, who was a walk-on at the University of North Dakota before playing three years at Concordia.

In his own opinion, he’s also no handyman. But when his wife, Jamie – who is a big Minnesota Gophers hockey fan – asked why they didn’t have an ice rink after hearing Matthew constantly talking about how fun it was to skate in the backyard at Brian’s brother’s place, Brian got to work.

While people were hauling flat-screen TVs to their cars on Black Friday, Brian was hauling $800 worth of lumber to begin his first backyard ice rink. He laid out the boards Friday and Saturday, with midnight Monday being the time to make some ice thanks to the temperature being in the teens. From midnight until 9 a.m., after Brian had called in late for work, he got up every hour to change the position of the hose. After all that work, the temperature hit 50 and Brian’s ice rink turned into a swimming pool for his neighbors. One of the biggest missing instructions is patience, from both the builder and the builder’s neighbors.

“I lost the ice twice, once for a leak and once because the temperature went up,” Brian said. “The kids showed an interest in skating, so you have to give them every opportunity to pursue it. Now, they are out there every night.”

Behind every rink builder there’s young children looking for their next obsession. Brian has triplets with daughters Ellie and Julia to go along with Matthew. Inside, Ellie and Julia is a future hockey player and a future figure skater, and Brian is just trying to provide the platform.

Ryan Stalboerger started with a 30-by-30 ice rink five years ago for his now 9-year-old son Justin, but has transformed it into a 100-by-70 arena for Justin and his 6-year-old son Geno.

“First year, you start basic, but then it’s fun to add to it each year,” Stalboerger said. “I live in the country, so I can make it as big as I want. I just love having skating parties for the kids. We have 15 kids out here some times. The kids keep yelling at me to get it done, so they must like it.”

What Brian Gramer didn’t expect when mentioning to a few that he was building a rink was being surrounded by other Moorhead dads, who have turned from businessmen like Brian and Rob Gramer to carpenters for their kids, as if he was announcing something at a news conference.

“There’s a whole culture in Moorhead,” Brian said. “I had people texting me tips and talking about their rinks. It’s crazy, but it’s fun for the kids.”

There is another thing that is often forgotten in the instruction manual for building an ice rink.

“Now I just need to figure out where I’m going to store all this stuff after winter,” Brian said. “Looks like I’ll be building a shed, too.”

Matthew may be asking why his backyard ice isn’t as smooth as the one for the Moorhead Spuds, but one day he could be looking back at dad’s rink and realizing that’s where his journey to the Spuds locker room began.

“Anybody that coaches and teaches young kids, high school kids or the upper levels recognize that being out there and having that freedom to just play and be creative really develops a much more well-rounded hockey player,” Moorhead head boys hockey coach Peter Cullen said. “I think it’s great. I love it and I encourage the heck out of it. We have a lot of parents at the youth level that are continuing the tradition of what their parents did for them and it’s wonderful.”

Unless, of course, Matthew finds another hobby.

“I saw him dribbling a basketball in the house the other night and asking if we could watch the Timberwolves,” Brian said. “I just laughed and said, ‘You’re playing hockey.’ ”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548