'Rink of Dreams' captures Oil Country spirit
Erron & Christa Steele's dedication helps build skill, relationships around Oil Country
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Alas, both my mom and dad were landscaping hobbyists (and sticklers, it seems), meaning their pristine and expertly manicured lawn couldn't be fettered during the wintertime; as such, all I could do was dream. And I did, over and over.
On a more serious note, my parents were amazing. In addition to all the early-morning practices and late-night games, they were the ones who drove me to my community's outdoor rink, and the ones who would pick me back up hours later when ice crystals lined my gloves, skates and toque-covered head.
It was there where I wasn't bound by a practice's schedule or coaches' demands. It was time better spent building relationships with others who shared a similar passion, chums with whom I continue to stay in contact with to this day.
And amid it all, it was about having a good time.
It's no surprise, then, to consider the nostalgia experienced when I visited Erron and Christa Steele's home in Leduc. There, a Rexall Place lookalike was constructed in their yard, slightly smaller (60' x 30') and with a chillier climate than you'll get at the Oilers' home arena. But with the mercury dipping well into the minuses, the aura seemed so right.
With attention to detail and ice quality rivaling the NHL's best, I couldn't help but smile and revel in the family's commitment to Oil Country's hockey-rich community spirit. Their rink, built with no outside help, has been a household ritual with the Steeles for the past four years.
"My boy's eight and my daughter's 11, and they're out here most nights with their friends," Erron said, clutching a Tim Hortons mug to keep warm on a cold Alberta evening. "On weekends, we could have 10, 12 kids a day for about eight hours. The kids love it and they get outside. It's what we do all winter long."
"The kids are out there sometimes 2-4 hours (a day)," Christa added with a laugh. "The most we've seen them out there is six hours, and we've had to threaten them to come in. We spend a lot of time out here."
When edmontonoilers.com visited earlier in the week, a group of a dozen local minor hockey players all convened to participate in a lively scrimmage; it's not uncommon, either, as the entire block has become entrenched in the Steeles' vision. In between ‘periods,' as marked by a giant scoreboard that hangs above centre ice, hot dogs and hot chocolate were served while the locker room (more commonly used as a kitchen) was bustling with energetic young stars eager for more ice time.
"The whole purpose of this rink is to improve our kids' skating ability and skill in general," Christa explained. "We have many friends that live and work in this community, so we try to invite all the hockey teams and have as many friends over to share the ability to use it every day, instead of playing video games.
"My son has vastly improved his skills and it's fun to watch them have fun out there, as opposed to being coached all the time."
Erron agreed, adding that, while it's evolved into a hobby for him, too (maintaining the rink with nightly care and repairs), his children and Leduc's hockey-mad community is most deserving.
The ice was the biggest challenge in recreating an arena-like feel, but Erron wanted more. The puck board, used to line the wooden enclosure, has a history in Edmonton that came as an added bonus: it was used at Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 22, 2003 when the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens went head-to-head at the Heritage Classic.
The plans don't stop there. They're ongoing, as Erron looks to expand his creation into a summer venture as well.
"[Erron] did everything from scratch," Christa said. "This year he made the boards where he can take down them down in sections, so it'll be a lot easier. The lines are tissue paper. We cut out the lines and laid them down with water. The Oilers logo is tissue paper, too, that my husband hand-cut a stencil with.
"It took probably six hours to do it all. Laying it (down) probably took another two days.
"It's going to come down because we're going to rip up the yard and make it more even. We've got about 2.5 feet of water on one side," she added, laughing. "We'll take them (the boards) down, rip up the yard, even it out and then next year, maybe we can leave it up and make a basketball court out of it."
For now, Erron is making the most of a recent cold snap. With his handmade (did you expect anything less?) hose and broom handle, Zamboni-like device in hand, water cleanly coated the ice, signaling the start of another lengthy period.
"It all depends on the weather," he smiled. "We'll go until we have to stop."
Jealousy aside, I couldn't help but smile either. It was a not-so-subtle reminder of cherished childhood dreams, experiences and a genuine look to the present, in which Oil Country's grassroots embracement of the sport is unmatched, alive and well.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick