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The puck stops here: The demand for backyard ice rinks heats up amid the pandemic

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Russell Kosovsky practices his stick handling. Russell, now 17, was 14 years old when this photo was taken. Maggie Kosovsky Photography

When Maggie Kosovsky and her family were house hunting in Northborough several years ago, their wish list included the usual nice-to-have home features, but one thing was nonnegotiable. “We needed a flat backyard,’’ Kosovsky said.

How else were they supposed to play ice hockey on the lawn?

Like many New Englanders, Kosovsky and her husband have set up a backyard ice rink every winter; they’ve done it since the oldest of their three children was about 4 years old. “He’s now 23,’’ Kosovsky said, and their youngest is a senior in high school. All three kids play hockey at some level — and as they’ve grown, so has the rink. “It was 16 by 32 feet when we started,’’ she said. The most recent iteration was 32 by 50.

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The Kosovsky family rink at twilight. —Maggie Kosovsky Photography

Andy Han and his family also were intent on finding a rink-ready yard when they purchased their Needham home. After a nine-year stint in San Francisco, where their three children learned to skate, Han and his wife were excited about embracing outdoor winter sports again as a family. “We felt like that was one of the big perks of moving back to New England,’’ he said.

So the following summer, Han started making preparations. He got truckloads of fill delivered to level out the backyard. Then he bought a basic home rink kit, which included bracket hardware and a plastic liner, but left him to cut and paint his own plywood boards for the perimeter.

It took a full day and hard work, Han said, to frame the rink and secure the boards and brackets in the ground with steel rebar. But once the wood frame was set up, there was nothing to do but watch the thermometer. “You’re constantly looking at the weather forecast’’ waiting for a cold snap, Han said. “Then you drop your tarp, and you start running water. A lot of water.’’

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Friends and family enjoyed the Han family’s backyard rink. —Karen Han

For the next five years, “Han Community Rink,’’ as his wife liked to call it, became a hub of winter activity for the family and their kids’ friends. “It’s great for the neighborhood,’’ Han said. “Being in the house, having the neighbors’ kids walk into your backyard, hearing the pucks off the boards at night — I really liked that part.’’

While Han passed on his rink gear to a friend with younger kids after 2017, Sudbury homeowner Tyler Steffey built his first home rink last year. Like many rookie rink-makers, the father of two sought counsel from online forums that discuss common challenges — like overcoming a sloped yard, determining when to “drop tarp,’’ and keeping the ice clear of pine needles, leaves, and snow once it’s frozen.

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Tyler Steffey used wooden pallets to reduce the amount of water he would need. —Tyler Steffey
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The Steffey family rink. —Tyler Steffey
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Steffey painstakingly drove 16-foot dowels into the ground to hang lights. —Tyler Steffey

John Greco, cofounder of the Facebook group and website Backyard Ice Rinks, said checking your yard’s slope is an important first step to avoid a rink-busting blowout. “If you don’t know how much water you’re holding back, you’re going to have a serious problem — because if you don’t brace it appropriately, all that water is going to end up in your neighbor’s yard, and they’re not going to be happy,’’ Greco said. The ideal rink would be 4 inches high all the way around, he said — “it just makes your life easier, because you’re only trying to freeze 4 inches,’’ he noted — but most rinks can accommodate a foot or more of additional depth at the lowest corner if the sides are properly reinforced.

With about 17 inches of slope to contend with, Steffey framed out a 15-by-40-foot rink with wood boards — adjusting their height to match the yard’s incline, so the rim of the rink would appear level all the way around. He braced the frame against the water’s weight with more than 30 pieces of 2-foot rebar pounded into the ground. Then — “because I don’t do much in moderation,’’ Steffey joked — he built a dozen wooden braces and spaced them around the rink every 10 feet or so, each anchored with more rebar. “If there had been a huge storm last year, a tornado or something, and the house blew away, I think probably the rink wouldn’t have moved.’’

To reduce the overall water volume and encourage a faster freeze, Steffey stuffed the deep end with two dozen-plus pallets procured from his firewood dealer, and covered them with cardboard to protect the tarp that would soon lay on top. “That cut down on the volume of water at my deepest points,’’ Steffey said, the way a rock displaces water in a cup. But in the soggy murk of early winter, he said, “It was an absolute eyesore.’’

Most people in the Northeast start setting up their boards around Thanksgiving, Greco said, when it’s still possible to stake them into the yet-unfrozen earth. But the timing of the next step — one Steffey calls easy but satisfying — varies by year. “It’s simple, you fasten the tarp and start filling,’’ Steffey said. Last year, he was fortunate to catch a cold snap in early December. “It was wintry mixing the whole day, so Mother Nature helped me in that regard,’’ he added.

“Everyone’s always complaining about the colder weather,’’ Kosovsky said, “and we’re like, ‘Bring it on!’ ’’ She buys a fresh tarp each season, since they tend to take a beating. (A white liner is the way to go, since darker colors absorb sunlight.) Han did the same, using the prior year’s liner as an extra layer underneath the new one, to offer added protection against rocks and roots.

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Leah, 3, and Ian Kosovsky, 5, share the ice. Ian, now 23, and Leah, now 20, still enjoy the rink every winter. —Maggie Kosovsky Photography

Once the rink is full of water, the wait to skate begins. It can take two or three days to get a solidly frozen surface — and you don’t want to rush it. One of the most common issues people post about online is a punctured liner, Greco said, which can happen when eager skaters take to the ice before it’s thick enough. “Someone skates on it and they bust through the ice, and the skate goes through the liner,’’ he said. At that point you have to patch the tear with underwater adhesive to save your rink — assuming you can find the leak.

Companies like NiceRink, EZ Ice, and Iron Sleek sell complete rink kits, which can range from a few hundred dollars for just the brackets and liner to a few thousand dollars for a ready-to-go kit with interlocking plastic sideboards. You can also hire a company to install it all for you.

“We come out, do an assessment of the area, make sure everything’s going to fit properly, and we just install it,’’ said Paul Austin, owner of TurfPrep in Woburn. They can take it down in the spring and store it for you, too. Austin recently quoted a corporate client $6,500 to install a 44-by-88-foot rink. That price included everything, he said. “Soup to nuts, everything but the water.’’

Just as COVID-19 scuttled summer vacations and prompted a surge in pool sales, many families who expect to stay close to home this winter see a backyard ice rink as a built-in source of family entertainment. Greco said his Facebook group of roughly 12,000 members has seen a huge uptick in interest, particularly after Massachusetts shut down hockey programs in October. “We’ve added at least 1,000 people in the last month,’’ he said. Likewise, Austin said he had received about 150 inquiries about installations in just the previous two weeks. “It’s all about the kids,’’ he said. “They’re just trying to keep their kids active.’’

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The Kosovsky family looks forward to the cold weather: “Bring it on!” Maggie Kosovsky says. —Maggie Kosovsky Photography

While Austin and Greco each have seen homeowners go all out with elaborate setups — from freezing neon rope lights into the ice to mimic the red and blue lines of a hockey rink, to a full border of clear polyethylene boards — most home rinks are pretty rustic. “Ours is really old school,’’ said Kosovsky. “It looks like a pond out there.’’

Steffey was able to add string lights above his rink, mounted on 16-foot-tall dowels painstakingly pounded into the ground. He also converted the backyard shed into a warming hut for hot cocoa, complete with a woodstove. “Adding lights and being able to skate in the dark was a really cool step,’’ he said.

Of course, a rink keeper’s job isn’t done after the first freeze. It’s good to clear the ice of leaves and pine needles before they create divots, and to periodically smooth out the ice with hot water and a squeegee. But if you’re not hosting a competitive hockey league, Steffey recommends calibrating your expectations. “It doesn’t take daily maintenance if you want a sheet that’s good enough for smiling kids,’’ he said. “It’s like skating on a pond or a river — it’s bumpy, there are leaves … it doesn’t have to be perfect ice to achieve that.’’

You’ll also have to adjust to the unpredictable whims of Mother Nature, Steffey said. “You can’t really plan that, say, in two weeks we’ll have the neighbors over for skating and hot cocoa and music,’’ he said. “So you really have to embrace the romance of spontaneity’’ and be ready to lace up when nature gives you the nod.

“Last year was a particularly bad winter for us in New England, so we didn’t get many skating days,’’ Kosovsky lamented. Normally, she said, they can skate well into March and take down the rink at the beginning of April — searching for stray pucks once the snow melts. “Finding the pucks is like the Easter egg hunt,’’ she joked.

But when nature comes through, there’s nothing quite like skating under the stars, or the sound of pucks hitting the boards, muffled by the impenetrable quiet of a snowy night.

Han said one of his family’s best skating seasons was the snow-bomb that was early 2015. “We were shoveling and snow blowing constantly,’’ he said, “but the rink was really magical, because the snow was so deep it kind of felt like we were skating in the middle of the woods.’’

Steffey, too, found the rewards to be worth the work — even amid last year’s warm winter. “We skated on Christmas morning,’’ he said, with more than a hint of wonder in his voice. “I mean, we opened gifts, we built a fire, then we went outside — and if we had had just that one skate for the whole season, I think it still would have been worth it,’’ he said. “To go outside and skate with cousins on Christmas morning — it was a real life highlight.’’

Jon Gorey blogs about homes at HouseandHammer.com. Send comments to jongorey@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.