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Making the most of winter's weather ; Backyard ice rinks developing into a hot winter trend

The holidays are long gone, we're in the middle of winter and the average low temperature for January is below 20 degrees.

Perfect conditions for Chris Burke and his backyard ice rink.

"It's a great winter activity," said Burke, a financial consultant from North Buffalo, "and in Buffalo you have to find ways to enjoy what we're all about."

January is prime time for backyard ice rinks -- Buffalo's version of the backyard swimming pool -- and this hockey town has plenty of them.

They're tucked away on small city lots and built behind suburban backyard fences from Newfane to Evans.

Most are created the old-fashioned way, built by rink veterans, like Burke, who spend a couple hundred dollars on supplies and then flood their backyards winter after winter to enjoy at least a month of good skating days -- and nights.

Others are expensive, and elaborate -- with cooling systems, warming huts and miniature Zambonis -- like the ones attorney Ross Cellino installed in West Seneca and dentist Todd Shatkin put in in Amherst.

"My kids have gotten hundreds of hours of fun out it," said Shatkin, who spent $50,000 for his custom backyard rink.

It's hard to put a number on just how many backyard rinks are scattered across Western New York, but there's enough around for Michael Pace to take notice.

Pace, owner of Pace Landscaping in Blasdell, started building backyard rinks this year to supplement his company during the offseason.

Business has been terrific. Pace has built 20 backyard rinks. They range in size, amenities and price, starting at $1,500.

"The response has been tremendous," Pace said. "It's definitely a viable revenue stream in our business, and this is just the first year. We've just touched the tip of the iceberg on this."

Much of his business is driven by hockey parents, like Shatkin, who couldn't get enough ice time for their kids on public rinks.

"This is such a huge hockey town," Pace said.

Rink kits are also available, but many prefer to build them on their own -- or at least that's what Joe LoVallo is seeing.

Work usually begins in November, said LoVallo, who watches dads -- with kids in tow -- fetch supplies at Len-Co Lumber on Seneca Street, where he's an assistant sales manager.

The families buy lumber, to frame the rink, and large rolls of plastic sheeting, used as a liner to retain the water as it freezes, LoVallo said. Materials tend to run between $200 and $300.

"There are lots of different ways to create them," Burke said, "and some of that will depend on the pitch of your yard."

Burke should know.

He's been building backyard rinks since he was a kid, and for years has wedged a 38-by-39 foot rink into his small backyard on Voorhees Avenue for his own four children.

Even as the kids have grown and moved on, Burke continues to find enjoyment with his rink, whether it's skating early in the morning when the moon is still out, or throwing a curling party using gallon jugs of anti-freeze as curling stones.

For some, a backyard rink brings back memories of childhood. Others relish time on the ice with their kids, away from the pressures of youth hockey. It's peaceful.

"If you've been around the hockey world, there's a distinct sound when [your] skates are hitting the ice," Pace said. "It's a great sound. I don't know what it is, but there's a certain attraction to that."

But backyard rinks can also be a pain.

"It's absolutely worth it," Burke said, "but it's a lot of work."

Burke keeps shovels close by to clear the ice of snow and chip away at the rough patches. He runs a hose through a basement window to a faucet -- the spigot outside freezes up -- so he can flood the rink with warm water for a smooth, pristine surface.

As "rink superintendent," he's learned a thing or two about the properties of water and meteorology.

"This had been a good winter, so far," Burke said. "There always seems to be a late-January thaw, and February is iffy. The latest I've had my rink is into March."

Cellino and Shatkin have taken quite a different -- and more expensive -- route with their backyard rinks.

A Canadian firm designed Shatkin's 32-by-64 foot rink, which was built a few years ago on 23 acres behind his home on Beresford Court.

Refrigerated pipes beneath the ice keep the rink frozen, even when the outdoor temperature hits 50 degrees. Skaters can seek shelter in a 10-by-16 foot-warming hut with benches and electric heat. Shatkin pays his teenage neighbor, Steve Petrotto, to maintain the rink.

While it cost about $50,000 to build, Shatkin said he also pays $600 a month in utility bills to keep it running.

But it's worth it, he said, considering what he was paying for ice time for his son, Jared, 17, who is now playing hockey at a New England prep school.

"I credit a lot of the hockey success he's had on a rink to skate on whenever he wants," Shatkin said.

Cellino's 44-by-76 foot custom rink was built several years ago by the same company that designed Shatkin's. It's equally as impressive, from the cooling system to the portable Zamboni he attaches to a small tractor.

But Cellino has mothballed his rink the past couple of years now that his kids are older.

A backyard rink helped his sons and daughters become good hockey players, but he has a piece of advice: stick to the homemade rinks.

While Cellino wouldn't say how much he spent to build his custom rink, his electric bill was costing him $1,500 a month.

"Stay away from building an expensive rink. It's not cost-effective," Cellino said. "Your kids grow up, they move on. They don't have the time."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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