TSN’s Darren Dreger has one cool backyard rink



Darren Dreger is one of TSN’s Hockey Insiders, but he’s also a Hockey Outsider.

In fact, he has one of the coolest backyard rinks you will ever see.

“It’s been a work in progress over time, but I finally kind of gave in and went more techno than I have traditionally,” Dreger said. “But it’s fantastic.”

After years of battling global warming and a backyard in Brooklin, Ont., that faces south, meaning the sun “eats the ice alive”, last winter Dreger had a refrigeration unit put in similar to what is used for the NHL’s Winter Classic, but on a much smaller scale.

“The refrigeration unit, really all it does is get you through the warm patches,” he said. “Start earlier and finish later. For the first time ever we were skating in November this year and I’ll probably, because of the unit, be able to go into early April. All it does is extend your season, really.”

Dreger figures the cost of putting together a rink like his — his refrigeration system is from Custom Ice Inc. — is between $20,000 and $25,000, or roughly the same price as an in-ground swimming pool. But he insists it’s worth it.

“It was a lot of money, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “That’s money I could have used doing a whole lot of other things, but my kids absolutely love it. I’m a prairie boy — I was born and raised in the prairies, so I love tinkering around in my backyard and doing this kind of stuff.”

Dreger’s 12-year-old son, Mason, plays peewee Triple-A hockey with the Whitby Wildcats, while his 14-year-old daughter, Cady, plays on a girls’ house-league team. Needless to say, the backyard rink is popular with their friends.

“That’s part of it as well, right?” Dreger said. “That’s why most families put pools in their backyards, because they don’t mind having the neighbourhood kids over.”

Finding ice to skate on was never a problem for Dreger when he was growing up in Saskatchewan.

“It got so cold so fast that we could easily just clean off the ponds or head down to the lake,” he said. “We always had access to lots of variety of ice from the local rink to the lake.”

He wanted to give his kids the same opportunity when he built his first backyard rink as a dad when they were around 6 and 4 years old. Any parent who has ever tried to build a rink can probably relate to his story.

“It was horrendous,” he recalled. “I just packed down a bunch of snow in my backyard and I got the kids to help me. Then I just flooded the snow and tried to build it up from there.”

That didn’t work out so well and after fighting bumps and cracks and freezing his fingers during floodings, eventually Dreger “just gave up on it.”

The next step came the following winter with what he calls the “rink in a bag”, where you buy special plastic bags, fill them with water and then take the top level of plastic off after the water freezes.

“I put three of (the bags) together and froze them and then packed the seams with wet snow,” he said. “It worked pretty good, but the yard wasn’t level and (the kids) could barely stand because it wasn’t level. It froze on an angle and they were skating uphill and downhill.”

Dreger eventually had a landscaper come in to level the ground in his backyard. One thing led to another over the years and now he has the coolest rink in the neighbourhood — sort of like the guy with the greenest lawn during the summer.

“(TSN colleague) Bob McKenzie is the crazy hockey dad (writing a book titled Hockey Dad: True Confessions Of A (Crazy) Hockey Parent), but I told Bob: ‘You’ve got to add another couple of chapters, my friend, because I’ve got some stories to tell.’ I don’t want to even add up what it’s cost, but it’s all good. It’s all fun.”

Dreger even had a hot-water tap installed outside to help with flooding his rink to keep it smooth. And after having the refrigeration system installed, he called Ontario Hydro to let them know.

“I didn’t want them to think I was running some kind of grow-up,” he said with a laugh.

Dreger’s son is on arena ice at least five days a week, including practices and games, with his peewee team, and Dreger figures he spends at least another 12 hours a week on the backyard rink.

“He’ll practise for two hours with his team and then he’ll come out here and shoot pucks for another 90 minutes or two hours,” Dreger said.

“I don’t want to be critical of our minor hockey systems,” he added. “It’s just there’s so much structure in the game now in minor hockey that this little backyard pad is the one place where he doesn’t have to play within a system, there’s no structure, he can celebrate a goal in any fashion he chooses, there’s no one barking in his ear for not doing this right or that right and, on top of that, he’s a bit of a perfectionist, as most Triple-A players are. He can work on the backhand for an hour without anyone saying we got to do this drill or that drill. For me, that’s where the payback comes, for sure.”

Dreger has a blog at TSN.ca devoted to his rink and says that during his travels he often runs into hockey people who want to talk about backyard rinks more than what’s going on in the NHL.

“It really is the subject that unites us all as hockey fans, as purists of the game,” he said. “I’ve had Bobby Orr come up to me, Cam Neely, Ray Shero, David Poile … all of these decision-makers of the National Hockey League game … this is what brings us all together. They’re as in love with my backyard as I am. You’re talking about very wealthy men and it pulls at their heartstrings, which is kind of cool.”

Dreger’s job will be a little different next season when Rogers Communications takes over the NHL’s national broadcast and multimedia rights with a new 12-year, $5.2-billion deal.

“I’m not going to lie … there was obvious impact, not just on me, but on all those that work directly with the NHL on TSN, and that’s from the highest office at TSN and CTV and Bell, right down to all of us who work both in front of the camera and behind the camera from a production standpoint,” Dreger said of the Rogers deal. “We’re going to feel it, but one thing that I’m quite proud of is the team that TSN has assembled and the camaraderie that exists and the belief that we’re still going to be the No. 1 voice when it comes to information in the National Hockey League moving forward. It doesn’t matter who has the national rights — that’s not going to change.

“Bob is committed, I’m committed, James (Duthie) is committed, our bosses are committed, and on and on it goes. In the short term, is there a negative influence or impact? Sure there is, because it stung when we all first got the word. But I can tell you that we’ve all readjusted our focus and we’re ready to challenge no matter what.”

On the bright side, maybe Dreger will have a bit more time to tinker with his rink.

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