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Developing players on backyard rinks, ponds is a way of life in Northland

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The Fryberger rink at the corner of Waverly Avenue and Hardy Street in Duluth. --- Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com2 / 10
Steve Ugrich's backyard rink at his home in Bovey. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 10
A bird's-eye view of the backyard rink of Gregg and Becky McCall in Duluth. Samantha Erkkila / serkkila@duluthnews.com4 / 10
Nolan Friday, 19, (from left), Matt Flaig, 20, Darby Friday, 9, and Isaac Kobienia, 20, skate on a rink cleared on a frozen pond below the Friday home in Lakewood Township. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com5 / 10
LED rope lights, strung underneath the ice, illuminate the red and blue lines at Chad and Tricia Baldwin's rink in International Falls. Submitted photo6 / 10
Kids play at the backyard rink of Travis and Sarah Polhamus in Grand Rapids. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com7 / 10
The rink at Kipp and Nikki Duncan's home in Hermantown is on a natural pond. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com8 / 10
When the rink in the backyard of Chad and Abby Pontinen's Biwabik Township home is all lit up at night, and especially when snow is flying, it's a beautiful sight. "It's just really neat to kind of see that tucked into the woods," Chad says. Submitted photo9 / 10
Nikki Welle's Tischer Treehouse stresses unstructured and nature-based play, like rink-ratting on the pond in the backyard of Nikki and Joe Welle's home. Submitted photo10 / 10

For his book, “Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds,” noted hockey writer Jack Falla visited Duluth to check out the patch of ice that’s sat on the corner of Waverly Avenue and Hardy Street since the 1940s.

It’s the handiwork of Robert Fryberger, unofficially a founding father of Duluth hockey. Fryberger died in 1957; his rink lives on.

“The only way there won’t be a rink is if I move out of town and take my hose with me,” Jerry Fryberger, one of Robert’s three sons, said in “Home Ice,” which was published in 2000.

Nineteen years later — and 72 years after it debuted — the sheet continues to welcome young skaters. Following Robert’s death, his wife, LaVerne, maintained it and ensured its survival. Jerry and his twin brother, Bob, eventually took over. The latter’s daughter, Kristina D’Allaird, and her husband, Dan, help out often. Indeed, it’s been a family affair, which is always what Robert, a hockey All-American at Dartmouth, intended.

“What do you do in the winter in Duluth?” Jerry, 81, asked during a recent phone conversation, the answer lined up like a one-timer. “You skate.”

The rink’s history is rich. In the 1950s, Robert coached a peewee team to the national championship at Madison Square Garden in New York City. That squad was comprised of kids who’d grown up skating on the corner of Waverly and Hardy, including future Olympians Tommy Williams and Dates Fryberger (Robert’s son). Williams went on to a fruitful NHL career.

They weren’t the only Olympians to receive their hockey baptism there. Phil Verchota, a member of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team, did, as well.

His mother, Phyllis Verchota, told Falla: “In the life of every good hockey player you’ll find an extra sheet of ice. For Phil it was the Frybergers’ rink.”

Similar stories abound throughout the Northland. Pick-up games, like shinny, checker backyard rinks — born of midnight floodings — and ponds from about Thanksgiving until state-tournament time.

Outdoor hockey.

It’s what we do.

When the News Tribune put out a call for photos of backyard rinks, the response was overwhelming. From Duluth to Bovey, Hermantown to International Falls, they poured in. Each one with its own unique and colorful story.

Here are a few of those stories, in no particular order.

The Ugrich Rink

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Location: Bovey

Size: 106 feet by 64 feet

Steve Ugrich is only 52, but he’s (mostly) retired. That frees up time to focus on life’s important stuff, like the hockey nirvana he’s built amid tall spruce trees and popples and oaks on his property near Trout Lake.

Four years ago, Ugrich cleared a plot of land. He put down a concrete slab for the ice sheet, which skirts a garage measuring 64 feet by 60 feet. There are actual hockey boards, acquired from a liquidating rink in Arizona. There’s a Greenway-themed locker room — Ugrich’s son, Steven Ugrich, plays for the Raiders, as did Steven’s older brother, Josh Ugrich — with an adjoining bathroom that boasts a shower. There are lights for the rink. Speakers, too.

And there’s a Zamboni, purchased via eBay from a seller in Manitoba.

It’s the pièce de résistance.

The elder Ugrich doesn’t need much coaxing to fire it up.

He’s had a blast bringing this place to life.

“It was a lot of work, but we had a lot of fun, too,” Ugrich said.

Even when nobody is home, he’ll leave the rink lights on and the locker room open so “neighbors can come and skate any time they want.” Steve and his wife, Jill, have four children and four grandsons. Josh has a boy who plays youth hockey in Grand Rapids, meaning the locker room might soon need a few splashes of orange.

This rink, which morphs into a popular street-hockey venue in the summer, rarely sits undisturbed.

“Steven — he’ll skate out here until midnight, 1 o’clock by himself some nights,” Steve said.

The McCall Rink

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Location: Duluth

Size: 90 feet by 44 feet

Listen closely from the rink behind Gregg and Becky McCall’s London Road home, and you might hear Lake Superior lapping up against the rocky shore. Here, the only distraction is the view. This rectangle of ice is a postcard.

When Gregg put it in six years ago, he intended the boards to be a foot or two high. Thanks to a friend’s suggestion, they’re closer to four feet.

“You have five kids that are all 8 and under — this is a huge playpen,” the friend said.

Gregg had no idea his creation eventually would resemble a daycare. He doesn’t object. It’s always bustling with rink-ratters, including his five hockey-playing children. They take a headcount, choose up sides and skate for hours.

“If they do this for two hours, I’d say that’s equivalent to eight practices,” Gregg estimates.

Over the holiday break, 14-year-old Drew McCall had his bantam team over in the morning. The same afternoon, Ty McCall, 12, invited his peewee squad over.

“We went through a lot of frozen pizzas and Gatorade,” Gregg joked.

As he spoke on an unseasonably warm afternoon last month, his 10-year-old daughter, Mae, was mixing it up against a half-dozen boys. Back and forth they went. Mae more than held her own.

“She’ll try to wake me up before school to come out and skate,” Gregg said.

On those days, Mae sets her alarm for 5:30 a.m. Her favorite players are Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and former Duluth East standout Derek Forbort of the Los Angeles Kings. Toews captains Mae’s favorite team.

What about the Minnesota Wild?

“The Wild have never won a Stanley Cup,” she said.

The Friday Rink

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Location: Lakewood Township

Size: Pond

Isaac Kobienia, a forward for the Minnesota Wilderness, hit the billet-family jackpot. Not only does the 20-year-old from Willmar, Minn., live with his girlfriend, Morgan Friday, but the Fridays’ backyard features a vast pond that doubles as a swimming and fishing hole in the summer.

In the winter, of course, it’s a spacious hockey rink. Game on.

“This is something I didn’t grow up with,” Kobienia said. “It’s really special. That’s why you see a lot of good hockey players coming out of Duluth.”

Josh and Bridget Friday have five children — Morgan, 20; Nolan, 19; Bailey, 17; Darby, 9; and Hadley, 8.

Recently, much of the family was out on the pond, simultaneously skating and trying to stave off frostbite. Dogs River and Remington avoided the slippery stuff, their paws lacking in traction.

“It’s just been a family sport for us,” Bridget said. “It’s always what we’ve done.”

The same could be said of soccer. Morgan is a standout at St. Scholastica, where she was the UMAC’s offensive player and rookie of the year as a freshman last fall. Nolan also excels on the pitch and is a former News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year. Like her older sister, Bailey plays soccer at Shattuck St. Mary’s.

As everyone filed outside, Josh stayed behind to watch football. He’d already done his duty, clearing the ice earlier in the day. Plus, he was headed to Portman later that night to do some flooding. Josh is originally from Philadelphia, but his hockey career brought him to St. Scholastica.

He enjoys seeing his kids, and their friends, get ample use of the frozen pond, which is surrounded by woods to form a picturesque setting.

“I like that they go out and do it for fun,” Josh said. “In Duluth, they play so much organized hockey.”

The Baldwin Rink

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Location: International Falls

Size: 60 feet by 40 feet

Like so many backyard-rink builders, Chad and Tricia Baldwin took the plunge as a way to entertain their three children — Brink, 8, Banks, 6, and Mira, 4 — cheaply and close to home. The sheet, its red and blue lines illuminated by LED rope lights strung under the ice, has appealed to other family members.

As the Baldwins hosted Christmas, a night-time skate was practically inevitable. And there was Tricia’s 68-year-old father, Jerry Kostiuk, moving about in his walker. Gingerly at first.

“Next think you know, he’s out there cruising around in the walker doing laps,” Chad recalled. “He was like a kid again.”

This is Chad’s third year setting up the rink. Rather than flood it himself, he has about 5,600 gallons of water trucked in, enough to last the season. A crude ice resurfacer made out of PVC pipe keeps it smooth for Brink, Banks and Mira, who are out there just about every day they don’t have practice, Chad said.

“You pick ’em up after school and they’re like, ‘Can we go out on the rink?’ ” said Chad, an assistant coach for the International Falls High School boys team.

The Polhamus Rink

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Location: Grand Rapids

Size: 76 feet by 36 feet

A well-struck slap shot from Pokegama Lake, Travis and Sarah Polhamus expect to get some mileage out of their rink. There are five boys, ages 2-6, in the wooded and close-knit neighborhood, and their families often congregate on the ice, or in the warming shack. Everybody is welcome.

On a frigid night last month, the boys were sharing the ice with Sarah’s daughter, 13-year-old Molly Pierce, and a few of her Grand Rapids-Greenway U-15 teammates.

The future Thunderhawk and Lightning players were unfazed by sub-zero temperatures. Moms and dads stood off to the side, watching and encouraging.

“This is the place to be,” Sarah said. “It’s so fun. It keeps them at home and it keeps them active.”

One of the neighbors is former Grand Rapids star Pete DeCenzo, who helped the Halloween Machine win state championships in 1975 and ’76. While Travis designed the rink, DeCenzo does much of the maintenance. And he’s always willing to tie a youngster’s skates or guide him around the ice.

Watching 5-year-old Callan Polhamus and a couple of his neighborhood cohorts, like Milo (almost 2) and Otto (almost 4) Francisco, glide around carefree, you get the sense that the future of Grand Rapids hockey is bright. They were having a ball learning the game the same way DeCenzo did growing up in Eveleth.

“Pete spends so much time with the little guys,” Sarah said.

Added DeCenzo: “I like doing it. I like watching the kids. And I have the time. I’m in seventh heaven.”

The Duncan Rink

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Location: Hermantown

Size: Pond

Nikki Duncan pestered her husband, Kipp, for years to shovel off the roadside retaining pond in the family’s front yard. Nikki finally took matters into her own hands.

The result: a quaint rink that doubles as a neighborhood hub.

“She gets the credit for getting this going,” said Kipp, a conservation officer by day and rink manager by night.

If Kipp manages this nostalgia-tinged pond, he has an expansive volunteer staff. Other dads frequently drop off supplies and shovel the sheet. Everyone knows where to find the light switch.

“It’s not our rink — it’s the neighborhood’s rink,” Kipp said.

He was talking on a chilly night last month as about a dozen skaters cut across the ice. They ranged in age from high schoolers to preschoolers, and the older kids were never too busy to help the younger ones, like 4-year-old Jefferson Park. Jefferson hardly could stand up on skates when the ice came in near Thanksgiving, but was confidently zipping around on this night.

Parents socialized next to a fire. Two red adirondack chairs sat empty, as did a church pew Kipp scored from the landfill. It makes a perfect bench, and a symbolic one considering hockey is its own religion in this community.

There were two color schemes for the lights — blue and gold for the Hermantown Hawks and blue and green for the Proctor-Hermantown Mirage. The Duncans’ 15-year-old daughter, Kora, is a freshman and future Mirage player, while 6-year-old son Dane is cutting his teeth in mites.

This pond is a favored meeting spot in the spring and summer, too, when the frogs and tadpoles are ripe for catching. Come winter, once the water freezes and Kipp has cleared the cattails that jut up through the ice, it becomes a hockey hotbed, where everyone wears a smile.

“It’s got a little bit of a Clark Griswold feel to it,” Nikki said.

The Pontinen Rink

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Location: Biwabik Township

Size: 70 feet by 40 feet

A couple years after Chad and Abby Pontinen built their house in 2012, he decided something was missing — a hockey rink. So he constructed a modest one off the driveway, 10 feet by 10 feet. The next winter, it was relocated to the backyard, where Chad had spent the summer clearing trees, and doubled in size. It’s continued to grow.

Perfect for the three Pontinen kids — 8-year-old Eli, Watson, who turns 3 Monday, and 1-year-old Quinn.

“Of course, every time someone is over, they’re like, ‘Well, you have a lot of room to go bigger,’ ” Chad said. “We’ll see.”

It’s been a labor of love. Chad skated outdoors growing up in Sparta and wanted his children to have the same opportunity.

“When we were young, we’d always put the skates over our shoulder and walk up to the Sparta rink,” said Chad, who played hockey at Eveleth-Gilbert.

Abby, a Mesabi East grad, is a former figure skater. This family knows its way around the ice.

Eli is a mite in the Virginia association. Hence, on one wall of the rink-side warming shack hangs a Blue Devils banner, and on the facing wall a Golden Bears banner. The rink itself is tucked into the woods. Strings of Christmas lights dangle above the boards. A flood light adds some oomph.

All lit up at night, it’s a striking sight. Relatives and friends stop by regularly.

There’s a public rink a mile up the road, Chad said, but it doesn’t offer the same convenience.

“Here, you walk right out the door,” he said.

The Welle Rink

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Location: Duluth

Size: Pond

Unstructured and nature-based play forms the foundation of Nikki Welle’s Tischer Treehouse in Duluth, an after-school program for children in elementary school.

With a frozen pond out back, plus Nikki’s collection of skates and hockey gear, you can guess how the nine kids in the program spend the bulk of their time.

“It’s become like their playground,” Nikki said of the pond, which, especially when the surrounding pine trees are blanketed by snow, looks like a painting.

Only two of the nine play organized hockey.

“But everyone skates,” Nikki said. “That’s what they want to do every day.”

Likewise for Nikki and Joe Welle’s three kids — Jackson, 8, Rylan, 7, and Bode, 3. Nikki said they are out there every weekend, often with their friends. When it gets dark, the lights come on and, perhaps, a fire roars to life. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

Maisy, the family’s enthusiastic golden retriever pup, can’t wait for the games to begin.

“She likes to steal the puck,” Nikki said.

Photo Gallery

When the News Tribune in late December solicited photos of backyard hockey rinks, Northland readers responded emphatically. Click here to see some of their submissions.

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