For all those future Wayne Gretzkys out there . . .

For the Falla family of Natick, Mass., the pleasures of backyard recreation don't end when the grass stops growing.

No sirree. The Fallas are the counterpoints to heat-loving swimming-pool owners. For them, Jack Frost is a major ally in a family tradition - skating on a homemade ice rink fashioned from wood and a large sheet of plastic.

For Jack Falla, maintaining this tradition has required such devotion - the rink has been constructed and torn down each of the past 16 winters - he realized it went beyond enjoying winter sports. If that's all it was, he could find a local ice arena or head for one of New England's many ski areas.

The rink's real value is as a bridge connecting him to the people he loves, he explains in "Home Ice: Reflections on Backyard Rinks and Frozen Ponds" ($18.95, McGregor Publishing), which includes a chapter on building your own rink.

A freelance sportswriter who also teaches at Boston University, Mr. Falla assumes several other roles each winter - rink architect, engineer, and executive icemaker for the "Bacon Street Omni," as the family's backyard rink is jokingly known.

Even before regularly checking Weather Channel forecasts, Falla expends considerable sweat equity digging postholes and securing dasher boards needed to keep hockey pucks from flying into the yard. He started digging postholes on Sept. 30 this year and finished Nov. 12.

The 40-foot-long rink takes 18 to 26 hours to fill, using a garden hose. A prolonged cold snap of about three days is required to freeze the surface.

After that, snow and skate shavings must be removed during the season to maintain good conditions. Instead of a blower, he uses a shovel, thinking of it as his winter exercise regimen.

The real payoff does not come from staying in shape, though. It results from the utter joy found in skating with family and with friends who help with the grunt work.

As a gesture of thanks and welcome, hockey sticks and a milk crate of pucks are left near the back door for drop-by skating friends.

Falla invites all his neighbors to skate, makes sure floodlights are focused on the ice surface, and enforces a switch from hockey pucks to tennis balls for quieter play beginning at 6 p.m. He carries regular property insurance and makes sure children wear helmets.

As for the adults, he has no worries. "There's no breed of person more self-accountable than a hockey player," he observes. "We've never had a serious problem."

Falla considers the rink a "self-contained world of laughter and hockey and hot chocolate," a place that enlivens the darkness and cold and pays homage to the New England cultural heritage.

It also has been a "lens" to watch his children and their friends grow up (he and his wife now have one grandchild), a "gateway into the lives of friends old and new," and a reminder of the frozen ponds and rinks of his youth.

The memories extend to when his mother encouraged his faltering first steps on blades and to the inexpensive rinkmaking kit he got for Christmas in 1950. It was little more than a strip of aluminum and a plastic liner that made a circle so small that "any figure skater performing on [it] for more than five minutes would have chopped the whole thing into a huge Slurpee."

After his mother died when he was a boy, his father began taking him to Boston Bruins hockey games. Hockey, he says, served as an emotional shock absorber and helped him through a "dark decade" after his mom's passing.

His affinity for the game continues. He loves to fire shots at his backyard goal, he can't see a fireplace screen without thinking "top corner," and he and his wife, Barbara, still enjoy passing the puck under the floodlights and celebrating empty-net goals.

From the reaction to an essay he once wrote for Sports Illustrated, Falla knows backyard rinks are as central to others' lives as his own. He has visited some, including the one in Brantford, Ontario, where Wayne Gretzky, the sport's all-time scoring leader, cut his hockey teeth. To send his sons a message that he didn't appreciate finding their hockey equipment strewn on the ice, Wally Gretzky turned on the sprinkler one night and "froze it all in."

Today, Falla suspects that some kids are so unfamiliar with outdoor ice that they think it's naturally white instead of clear.

Falla says the advantage of a backyard rink is control. You can put up boards, lights, and not have to to worry about "inconsiderate hoseheads who traipse across the ice when it is soft and slushy."

At the end of the season, the rink is drained and broken hockey sticks turned into tomato stakes. It doesn't pay to be impatient, Falla has learned. He once got "greedy" and poked 50 or 60 holes in the liner, only to turn his cellar into a wading pool. Now, about a dozen holes allow the water to recede over several days.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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