By Louie St. George
DULUTH, Minn. -- 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.
It's what we do.
When the Duluth 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
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
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
Location: Lakewood Township
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."
To read more about some of the backyard rinks in northeast Minnesota, visit the Duluth News Tribune's story.
Check out the backyard hockey rink photos submitted by readers of the Duluth News Tribune.