"That's where the passion started," Jonathan Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks' captain, told NHL.com. "There were a lot of cold winters and for me there was nothing better to do, no better way to spend my time than outside on that rink. That's how I grew up. It definitely influenced me and made me choose this career path."
The rink was built annually by Toews' father, Bryan, who labored through sleepless nights so his sons, Jonathan and David, a New York Islanders prospect, would have their own home rink. He didn't do it for money, only love.
Come Jan. 1, when the captain leads his Hawks onto Dan Craig's ice atop Wrigley Field's hallowed turf for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009, he expects the memories of playing shinny with his buddies and skating hours by himself to come flooding back.
The Wrigley rink will have professional boards, glass, blue lines, red lines, goal lines and faceoff circles. It will be cooled by giant refrigeration units in a truck parked outside the stadium, but to Toews, it may just be like going home again.
"Hopefully I'll have that secret weapon being used to skating outdoors for all those years," Toews said. "I think it will definitely bring back a lot of great memories. That's where it all started for me. It's cool to have this throwback version of the game and be able to relive those memories."
Toews remembers his father first building the rink when he was 5-years-old. It was small at the time, but over the years Bryan added to it enough so his boys could get a game of 3-on-3 or even 4-on-4 with their buddies by the time Jonathan was a teenager.
"You could get some speed and start moving around out there," Toews said.
Toews said because Winnipeg got so cold that his father could build the rink right over the grass. He made his own boards and would attach a sprinkler at the top of his ladder and spray a quarter of the grass at a time to make the ice.
"Eventually, if it was cold enough, the water would freeze the grass," Toews said. "When it started snowing, you'd get a light layer of ice and if it got thick enough you could start building it up pretty good. We had ice outdoors before any of the outdoor community clubs did most years. I think the earliest time we had it was the first week of November.
"He was up in the middle of the night and had this whole schedule he was on. He was diligent about it because he wanted us to get out there as soon as we could."
One year, in search of snow to pack on the grass to build up the ice surface, Bryan Toews went canvassing the local community centers for shavings the Zambonis left outside in piles.
"It sounds unbelievable, huh?" Toews said.
"We loaded up the back of this trailer with the snow that the Zamboni dumped outside the rinks," he added. "It took a couple of trips, that's for sure. We didn't get the whole rink, but it was a start I guess. As soon as we could get that first sheet of ice down he could start flooding it and eventually it would become usable.
"We had ice in the middle of a big field where there was no snow."
Through dad's hard work and due diligence, the Toews boys were the envy of all the kids in his neighborhood. Even people they didn't know would find their way to the big field to use the rink that Bryan Toews created.
That's when things got a little dicey.
"Especially if they were kids, we kind of get aggressive," Toews said. "It was like a streetball game. We had to try to chase the other kids off so we could get the rink to ourselves.
"My dad worked hard to take care of the rink, so we would start showing off our skill and start shooting the pucks high so they would get a little intimidated and maybe figure they should go back home."
"I think it will definitely bring back a lot of great memories. That's where it all started for me. It's cool to have this throwback version of the game and be able to relive those memories." -- Jonathan ToewsToews recalls some memorable pick-up games with his buddies, but what was really special to him was the hours he spent skating by himself.
"I could spend hours out there by myself playing around and getting better and better," he said.
"Obviously it has made a huge difference in me. My biggest influence was my dad. He was the biggest reason I wanted to be a hockey player."
Bryan Toews has since relinquished his rink-building duties to a neighbor, who has his own son. Jonathan said he hasn't taken a twirl there since Christmastime in 2004, when he came home from Shattuck-St. Mary's for break.
However, knowing the ice is still there and that he could skate it if he wanted to warms his heart, because while he's making good money to play the game he loves, Toews still yearns for the loneliness of his frigid and flat back-yard rink.
"There's a part of me that still misses the simplicity of just being out there and not having a worry in the world," Toews said. "Obviously now the game has changed for me. There is a more pressure and expectations. Obviously I still enjoy the game, but it was definitely different back then."
For a few hours on New Year's Day, he'll be able to pretend he's back there again.
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org