Back Yard Bonus
One Maplewood family takes recreational ice skating to the next level, by Malia Rulon
Imagine walking out your back door and straight onto an ice skating rink. Sure, you could do that if you had a mountain lodge on a lake, or if you lived in ice-cold Minnesota.
But imagine if, nestled right here in the suburban New Jersey town of Maplewood, a short 30-minute train ride from New York City, you had your very own, private, backyard ice skating rink.
For one local family, the Leibenspergers, that dream has become a reality – and it’s lasted for five years and counting.
It all started as an inspired Christmas gift in 2014. “The idea came from my brother-in-law and sister-in-law who live in Massachusetts,” says Marlowe Leibensperger. “Their kids play competitive ice hockey and they had built a rink for a few years, so I was intrigued and started to look into it.”
Turns out, you can order any array of ice skating rink kits from Amazon, anything from a simple 10-foot by 20-foot rink for $35 to a roomy 20-foot by 40-foot rink for $385.
Leibensperger chose one from NiceRink, which comes with brackets and a liner, along with instructions. “The only other thing you need are sheets of plywood, cut to be the boards,” he says.
A native of rural Pennsylvania, Leibensperger actually didn’t grow up ice skating; he was more into soccer, basketball and baseball as a kid than hockey. He learned to ice skate as an adult, which was “definitely more challenging to pick up.” It was his wife, Erin Konta, who grew up ice skating.
“(She) has lots of stories of skating at Rockefeller Center around the holidays,” Leibensperger says. “This is one of the big reasons I wanted to get my kids started with skating when they were young.”
Leibensperger’s kids are now 12, 11 and 8 – five years older than that first year when Santa left a big box and a picture of an ice skating rink under the tree.
“I love having the rink because I can skate whenever I want,” says Alison Leibensperger, 12. “And we have something to do each day,” adds her brother, Ryan, 11. Jack, the youngest, says he loves that he learned how to skate on “his rink.”
“The kids skate on it as much as they can,” Leibensperger says. “They mostly just skate around, but have started to play a little hockey.”
Scarlett Levinson, a neighbor who lives up the street and is good friends with the Leibensperger’s oldest child, Alison, says some of her friends have pools in their back yard, or trampolines, but she doesn’t know anyone else with a home skating rink.
“I would never have thought of putting an ice skating rink in the back yard,” she says. “I feel like you’re really lucky if you are friends with them because you have an ice skating rink on your own street. Instead of having to go somewhere else to skate, you can just walk down the street.”
Unfortunately, Maplewood’s weather doesn’t always cooperate. Warm temperatures or excessive snow on the ice make the rink unusable. “The biggest challenge is keeping snow off of the ice to keep it smooth and ready for skating,” Leibensperger says, adding that there have been big snowstorms where he’s had to shovel the rink – or take the snow blower up on the ice.
The rink usually goes up mid-December and lasts until about mid-March. On an average year, the Leibensperger family will get about 15 to 20 ice skating days. “The kids and their friends love to be on the ice,” Leibensperger says. “It’s fun to be outside, and more ice time means less
Plus it really isn’t that hard to set up. The first year, it took Leibensperger about eight hours to build. Now, he can get it constructed – and taken down – in about half that time.
“First, I measure out a perfect rectangle, mark each corner with a pole in the ground, and use string to outline the border,” Leibensperger says.
The string shows Leibensperger where the brackets need to be put into the ground. From there, the boards can be put into the brackets and tightened together. Then he lays a liner over the boards and on the ground.
“Fill it up with water and you are ready to freeze,” he says.
Leibensperger fills the rink with their backyard hose, or – depending on the timing – rainwater. The goal is to freeze about two to three inches of water in each section of the rink.
The tricky part is making sure the rink is flat, which depends on whether your yard is level. “One step I skipped the first year was to use a laser level to see how much slope was in the yard,” he says, admitting that their yard is not as flat as it looks.
Leibensperger says that he’s learned a lot over the past five years of making the rink, including how to know if it’s ready for ice skaters.
“This is more art than science, at least our approach,” he says.
Once the ice is frozen, they keep it flat by keeping it clean and giving it a fresh surface when needed. This is done by spraying a layer of hot water on the top, which melts the bumps out and re-levels the surface.
“[If you do this] on a subfreezing temperature night, you will have a new, ready to skate surface by the morning,” Leibensperger says.
So how long does he plan on maintaining his annual tradition of setting up his family’s private backyard ice skating rink?
“The rink will go up as long as the kids use it,” he says. “I don’t see that changing any time soon.”
Malia Rulon Herman has walked past the Leibensperger’s ice skating rink every day for the past three years and has long been intrigued and utterly impressed by the family's annual backyard project.