- Associated Press - Monday, January 25, 2021

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) - Bronson Jones finished a recent Monday of virtual school before hitting the ice to work on his hockey skills.

The 10-year-old simply had to walk out his back door, lace up his skates and put on a helmet before he was flicking pucks at a net in 26-degree weather.

The self-guided hockey practice was possible thanks to his father, Justin Jones, who constructed a do-it-yourself style rink in the family’s back yard in December.

“I think (my dad) does it to get me better and to have fun,” Bronson said of his rink. “When we are at The Rink (of Battle Creek), we are working hard trying to get better. But for here, it’s just about having fun.”

The Joneses are among a growing number of Battle Creek families who have constructed their own backyard ice rink this winter as the pandemic left many indoor ice facilities like The Rink in Battle Creek operating at a reduced capacity and without sanctioned hockey games, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer.

“It’s a huge thing to keep kids outside during the winter time so they aren’t cooped up inside playing video games,” said Justin Jones. “We’ve seen huge growth in the home rink this year with the pandemic.”

It’s the third year for the Jones’ backyard rink. It measures at 22-by-25 feet, and has lights strung overhead and a liner made out of boat shrink wrap. Justin said it probably cost him about $300 to build, adding that doubled his water bill when they filled it.

Depending on the size and quality, home ice rink kits and artificial or synthetic rink kits can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000. Home ice rinks tend to require more maintenance and are more weather dependent.

Tanner Beuchler has built a backyard ice rink for his two sons in each of the last six years. His is on the larger side at 30-by-50 feet, and he owns an ice resurfacer for when temperatures begin to dip, which compromises the ice.

“We had an ice storm 6 years ago, my son put his skates on and was skating in the driveway and I thought, ‘What a good idea. Why don’t I build him a rink out here?’” Beuchler said. “It works out for everybody. Especially this year, the kids are itching to skate. In Michigan, this is what we look forward to every winter, is hockey. You live in Michigan, you have to have something to do otherwise you go stir crazy in the house.”

Rick and Jennifer Powell have owned The Rink since 2016. After the state-mandated shutdown, the married couple reopened the 35,000-square foot downtown facility at a reduced capacity beginning Dec. 18. They can now permit up to 70 skaters on the ice and up to 250 in the building following the updated state public health orders issued on Jan. 13.

However, those limits coincide with increased demand for public skate times as families search for safe activities to do in the winter. The Rink posts and updates its open skate schedule on its website, when it’s first come, first serve for families looking for ice time.

“It’s not uncommon for us to turn 100 folks away,” Jennifer said. “People are constantly asking when our next open skate is. I would come at least a half hour early. It will probably still hold true with the expanded numbers.”

Because hockey is a contact sport, games sanctioned by the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association cannot be held under the current state order, representing a loss of games and tournaments at The Rink.

“The loss of organized hockey is hard,” Rick said. “Our teams haven’t practiced as an organization. There’s some skill practices, but haven’t been able to organize and have sanctioned games… November and December has been pretty rough, and this month as well. Those are our biggest months of the year, those are what keep us going through the summer during those 4-5 months when we’re not open. So it’s going to be a tough summer.”

The Powells added that those canceled games and tournaments don’t just represent a loss in potential revenue for The Rink, but an economic loss for the city as travel teams typically spend money on local hotels and restaurants.

“Rick and I work outside of The Rink and don’t take income from this facility, we do this as a labor of love because we love our community and want this facility to stay open,” Jennifer said. “We want to keep this open because it’s a great community and so many kids play and skate here. We look forward to continuing to host games and tournaments and to bring people into town.”

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