Colorado dads bring hockey home as backyard rinks take over mountain towns

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It’s pitch dark, temperatures are in the teens and Eric Schissler is out in his front yard, spraying, of all things, a hose. He’s not watering his begonias; those are long gone. Instead, he’s flooding the homemade ice rink in his front yard, complete with lights, 6-inch-high boards and goals. He acts as the Zamboni. 

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

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During a slow start to the snow year, like most of Colorado experienced this season, building it is easier. Cold temperatures mean easy freezing and lack of snow means easy shoveling. But you need both; this season it stayed warm, complicating matters. But the end result is always worth it, he said, creating an outdoor playground for the neighborhood kids to hone skills — and more importantly, burn up energy — all winter. 

“Last year was brutal because of all the snow,” said Schissler, who co-owns the Bella Vista Estate vacation retreat south of town and earned his ice-clearing chops spending three winters maintaining the outdoor ice rink on Evergreen Lake during high school. “But this year has been just as tricky because of the warm temperatures.” 

His trick: “You have to get the snow off of it right away, or it will insulate it and turn it into slush. So, every time I snow blow the driveway, I snow blow the rink.” 

New build-a-rink systems like those from EZ Ice and Nice Rink also help, with the kits including liners, boards, lights and more. For his 50-by-25 foot EZ Ice rink setup, he paid about $3,500, but “everyone always upgrades.” And he’ll probably buy a new 6-millimeter liner every year, instead of patching holes. But it’s worth every penny and hour of shovel time.

“It’s been a total game changer for my 5-year-old,” he said. “He has a huge passion for it now. It’s all he wants to do.”  

While no figures exist for exactly how many homespun outdoor ice rinks pop up around Colorado each winter, the trend is growing, as parents burn the midnight oil to make rinks for their kids and others. Maybe it’s not booming by Canadian standards, where backyard rinks are more common than Tim Hortons doughnut shops, but it’s growing nonetheless. 

“I have quite a few buddies who make rinks in their backyards every year,” said Mike Campanale of Avon, a local hockey coach who also plays in the Eagle town league. “The kids love them and are on them all the time. There’s no better way to instill a passion for the sport.” 

a group of kids on ice skates and hockey sticks play on a ice rink in the mountains
Kids play around on Jason Landa’s homemade backyard hockey rink Feb. 2 in Wolcott. Landa regularly smoothes the ice using a handheld Zamboni. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Public outdoor ice rinks 

If your next-door neighbor has jumped on the ice rink wagon, so have Colorado’s mountain towns and resorts. While ski areas from Telluride and Beaver Creek to Snowmass and Steamboat have all added skating rinks to their wintertime amenities, mountain towns themselves have also hopped on board, flooding parks and snowblowing local ponds and lakes for skating. The results bring not only another amenity to communities but also revenue.  

One region embracing it is Summit County, whose Dillon Reservoir typically hosts the annual PBR Colorado Pond Hockey Tournament every Presidents Day weekend. But just like backyard dads, organizers of events like that must deal with the whims of nature. On Feb. 2, just three weeks before this year’s event, a piece of snow-clearing machinery fell through the ice, forcing Dillon officials to cancel the tournament, saying “recent weather fluctuations and unforeseen environmental factors … led to deteriorating ice quality.”

No matter. Just like he would on the ice, event organizer David Janowiec of Erie-based event management company The Recess Factory, pivoted, moving the event to Georgetown Lake in the town of Georgetown just a 25-minute drive away, even bringing on Cabin Creek Brewing as a a last-minute sponsor. 

“They welcomed the tournament without any hesitation, which is quite incredible in such a short time period,” he said, adding the lake has been hosting ice activities such as ice racing since the 1970s and currently has “17 inches of some of the clearest ice in Colorado.”

The annual PBR Colorado Pond Hockey Tournament on Dillon Reservoir draws 300 teams from across the country that compete on 24 rinks every President’s Day Weekend. Poor ice conditions on Dillon this year forced the tournament to move to Georgetown Lake. (Courtesy The Recess Factory)

Dillon typically offers an outdoor rink open to the public all winter, and Silverthorne has another on 5-acre North Pond. But the tournament is the real moneymaker for the region, drawing hundreds of teams (many in costumes) from all over the country. 

“It’s one of the nation’s largest outdoor hockey tournaments,” Dillon communications manager Suzanne Phillipson said. “We’re excited to host it every year, and it’s one of our main wintertime events.”  

The tournament began on a tiny, two-rink pond in Frisco in 2009, drawing 30 teams. It then moved to Silverthorne’s North Pond, where it hosted the tournament on 18 rinks, before moving to Lake Dillon three years ago. The past two years tournament officials built and maintained 24 rinks and capped its teams at 300, with another 180 on the waiting list. 

“We opened the sign-up list on March 1 last year and sold out March 1,” said Janowiec, who tries to play on a team every year. “We’ve sold out every year.”  

Still, it took a while for Denver Water, which owns the reservoir, to approve it. 

“They weren’t open to it for a long time,” said Janowiec, of the utility-owned reservoir where swimming and water-contact sports are prohibited. “Then the town talked to them and got approval for their Nordic trail, and then we went to them jointly about this. It’s been a great location for it.” 

While his company also organizes the Leadville 100 event for Lifetime Fitness, he said this event is even bigger. With each team consisting of six players, plus extras as well as family members and friends, he estimates it brings nearly 4,000 people to Summit County every year — all over an already busy Presidents Day weekend. The town doesn’t track the tournament’s economic impact, but Phillipson said she knows it’s substantial.

“Plus, they all ski,” she said. “It’s a huge event for the town.”  

Janowiec said it lures people from nearly every state. 

“It’s so much better than a pond hockey tournament in Minneapolis,” he said. “Who wants to go there in the winter? Here, it’s a great resort destination surrounded by incredible mountains with plenty of lodging and great skiing. People have a blast. And Georgetown will be great as well.” 

25,000 people skated Evergreen Lake last year 

Evergreen Parks and Recreation special district runs a booming skating operation on Evergreen Lake downtown. Lake House manager Krista Emrich said more than 25,000 people skated on the lake last season. The lake usually has about a two-month season, from late December to the end of February. 

“It’s hard to predict,” she said. “Every year is a little bit different. This year we were holding our breath to get open by New Year’s Eve.” The weather gods cooperated, and the lake had more than 1,500 people come skate on New Year’s Eve. Last year, she added, they saw “a few thousand people every day on the weekends.” 

While low snowfall years make clearing the ice easier, Evergreen Lake needs snow to create the banks for its 16 hockey and two additional recreational skating rinks. And hockey, she said, is a big draw, from pick-up games to tournaments. This year the rink hosted its 13th annual Evergreen Lake Pond Hockey Tournament Jan. 20-21, with 48 teams from across the country.

 “It’s probably a pretty even split between free skaters and people playing hockey,” she said of the rink’s overall use, “but hockey is definitely getting super popular.” 

More than 25,000 people skate on Evergreen Lake every winter, about half of them playing hockey. The January Evergreen Lake Pond Hockey Tournament turned 13 this year with 48 teams. (Courtesy Evergreen Parks and Recreation)

And whether it’s skaters with sticks or working on their triple lutz, the rink brings in substantial revenue. Participants pay $20 per outing, which includes rentals if needed, for the entire day. The funds support a Zamboni and tractor, an old-fashioned, hot chocolate-serving lodge, and a highly trained ice-maintenance crew who measures the lake’s 9 acres of ice daily (minimum depths, she said, range from 16 inches for the Zamboni to 12 to 14 inches for the tractor).

“I don’t know what else you can do all day long for $20 anymore,” Emrich said. “It’s a marquee attraction during wintertime for sure, right in the center of town with a path around the whole lake.”   

Another iconic skating rink is 5-acre Keystone Lake at Keystone Resort’s Lakeside Village, which joins the resort’s Dercum Square rink in River Run Village. Bordered by a lodge with skate rentals and new Rathbone Taproom, it’s one of the largest, Zamboni-maintained outdoor skating rinks in North America. 

Vail Resorts doesn’t share visitation and usage numbers, but spokeswoman Sara Lococo said, “It’s a super popular and unique activity for our guests and a great way to recreate outdoors after the ski day.” As with Dillon and Evergreen, Keystone has embraced hockey tournaments as a way to pad the bottom line. It hosts the 9280 Pond Hockey Tournament (named for its elevation) every third weekend in January, filling beds, restaurants and dental offices.   

In Eagle, the whole town gets involved, with a group of volunteers known as the “Eagle Ice Dads” building and maintaining two free ice rinks in Town Park in front of the Centennial Stage, complete with lights and fire pits. The town rinks date to the 1930s and hosted local adult and youth hockey leagues until the indoor Eagle Ice Rink opened in 2003. Its ringleader is Andy Clark, whose company Alliance Moving Systems helps foot the bill for materials and storage. A job box is filled with free, donated gear to use. 

“The town is super receptive, providing the park and water,” Clark said, adding that the rinks are usually open from Christmas until the end of February. “But it’s always been volunteer-driven. It’s a nice marriage. The volunteers have all the equipment and put in the time, and the town has the location, water and other amenities.”

Clark estimates more than 250 kids showed up for opening day, their parents more than happy to see them release their pent-up energy.  

Clark admits the countless hours of flooding, layering and shoveling is a labor of love. He estimates his team of volunteers puts in upward of 1,000 hours every year to make it work. But it’s all worth it, he added, to see the kids skating.

“They love it,” he said. “We’re selling kids on the love of hockey, instead of its competitiveness. They’re learning that if you put your skates on, you win.” 

Like a hockey player skating up and down the ice, the movement has trickled up and down the valley.

“There’s a lot of effort in the valley going into building rinks outside,” said Clark, adding he’s advising someone looking to build an outdoor rink in Vail where the current rugby field is located. “The problem is getting the right protected location, foundational support and conditions to build it. My advice: Create a volunteer group because it takes a lot of time and expense.” 

Other outdoor rinks in the Eagle River Valley include one in Minturn at the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy spearheaded by local Kyle Forte, who runs a hockey development company; another 50-by-100-foot outdoor rink in Gypsum; two outdoor rinks in Edwards just south of Battle Mountain High School, championed by local hockey aficionado Tom Boyd; and Nottingham Lake in Avon, where Clark used to stage an annual pond hockey tournament.  

Over in Carbondale, outdoor hockey is going gangbusters as well. Established in 2021, the Colorado Extreme Hockey Association is dedicated to nurturing youth hockey in the Roaring Fork’s midvalley region. It’s in the second year of its outdoor rink two miles east of Carbondale near the Roaring Fork River. The infrastructure for its first rink, in operation for the inaugural season at Crown Mountain Park in nearby El Jebel, was moved to serve as a rink at the Garfield County Fairgrounds in Rifle.   

Extreme’s current rink system, consisting of one refrigerated rink and a second sheet of natural ice, is located on 40 acres the association purchased. The effort was led by former Division I collegiate player and entrepreneur Sheldon Wolitski, whose mission is to bring hockey to those who may not otherwise have access to the sport. The plan is to turn it into an enclosed arena while keeping the outdoor second sheet.  

“There’s plenty of demand here for it,” said the program’s director of hockey, Carlos Ross, who moved from Buffalo, New York, to implement Wolitski’s hockey ambitions for the Roaring Fork Valley. “There’s been a huge boom for it here and we’re trying to build it up even more.”   

He added that the association has more than 350 young people enrolled in its programs, with 70 playing competitively through USA Hockey. The biggest problem, he said, is parents saying their kids can’t skate on weekends because that’s when they go skiing. “I’m from Buffalo,” he said. “Weekends are when you play hockey. But it’s heading in the right direction.”  

And there’s nothing better than skating outside, Ross said. “To be able to skate outside in a place like this is truly amazing,” he said. “And it makes the kids that much better.” 

Ross credits the success of the Colorado Avalanche as helping build his and other programs, with their association even hosting an Avalanche alumni game and skills clinic in December that drew more than 1,000 people while raising money for their organization. 

Bringing it home 

Still, there’s nothing like the freedom of a backyard rink, where you can lace up the skates under a full moon or rising sun or even halftime of an NFL game. Just ask the Colorado Pond Hockey Tournament’s Janowiec, who builds a backyard rink for his friends and kids, Avery, 12, and Jacek, 9, every year in Erie, complete with a full bar (with hot chocolate for the kids), TV, couch and lights. “They absolutely love it,” he said. “They’re on it every day.” 

And perhaps no one agrees more than Aspen-raised Pete and Johno McBride, skiers and hockey players whose outside rink in Old Snowmass has developed skills, thrills, chills and spills since they were boys. Johno, who coached Bode Miller to two World Cup titles, now serves as alpine director for the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, while Pete is a photographer, writer and filmmaker who has traveled on assignment to more than 75 countries for the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, Google and The Nature Conservancy. But neither is above shoveling their rink when they come home. 

“The more snow, the harder they are to maintain, requiring lots of shoveling,” Pete said. “But cold temperatures help and so does wind, which can blow off the dustings.” 

He added that between Mother Nature and manpower, including surface flooding to fill in cracks, they can usually get three months or so out of it every year, depending on the weather. 

And neither he nor Johno would trade skating on it for the world.

 “It’s just magical and beyond fun — we all love it,” Pete said, adding the only thing better is skating on natural lakes. “It’s like being in a total time warp.”