“It’s so rewarding to create joy in a time of isolation”: Meet the 22-year-old building skating rinks in backyards across the GTA

“It’s so rewarding to create joy in a time of isolation”: Meet the 22-year-old building skating rinks in backyards across the GTA

Noah Roelofsen has built hundreds of backyard skating pads through his family business, Rink Build. The 22-year-old describes taking over the company just as Covid cancelled hockey leagues and closed community rinks.

As told to Luc Rinaldi

“Growing up, the hockey rink was my second home. My family moved from Vancouver to Toronto when I was eight, and I learned to skate soon after. I played for my school teams, but my true love was shinny. I practically lived at the Dufferin Grove rink most winters, playing pickup games with an ever-rotating roster of skaters. Every Saturday, my family would walk to the winter farmers’ market at Wychwood Barns, where my parents would sip hot apple cider while the neighbourhood kids and I took shots on a grizzled old goalie who padded up every weekend without fail. I loved the sense of community I found on the ice.

“For my 12th birthday, my dad—clearly tuning into my obsession—suggested building a small skating rink in the backyard of our house in Oakwood Village. It took a few days of hard work to put the rink together, but it was worth it. When my birthday arrived, my friends couldn’t believe it. We had a blast skating that day—and the party never stopped. We invited just about everyone we knew to skate in our backyard that winter. It wasn’t long before some of them started asking if we could build rinks in their yards, too.

“Over the next decade, my family turned our one-off idea into a backyard ice-pad business called Rink Build. It seemed meant to be: my dad ran a truck and trailer cleaning service during the summer, which meant he had staff—and a whole lot of water—on hand come wintertime, when power-washing jobs typically dried up. So my dad took the lead, my mom handled emails and finances, and my younger sister and I helped with the builds. Last year, we made our largest rink ever—120 by 60 feet—for a community centre. Not quite an NHL arena, but not bad for some DIYers who started with a tween’s birthday party.

“This year, my dad passed the Rink Build business down to me. It might have been nerve-racking if not for the fact that I’ve been starting businesses all my life. When the pandemic began, I launched a door-to-door mailbox-sanitizing service; I have a side hustle selling my crocheted hats on Instagram; and I can’t wait to resume dinnerparties.ca, a website I run where you can hire local chefs to cook for your dinner parties. I have a bit of formal business training from Acadia and Ryerson Universities, but I’ve always preferred learning by doing.

“Still, there couldn’t have been a more dramatic time to take over the family business. With community rinks closed and hockey leagues cancelled because of Covid, people are in desperate need of places to skate. In an average year, we build 20 to 30 rinks. This season, we’ve already built 40, and it’s technically not even winter yet. We’ve been getting requests since August.

“When we get an inquiry, I visit the customer’s house and inspect their backyard with a laser level (there’s no such thing as a completely flat yard). Once I’ve taken measurements, I provide a quote within 48 hours: our rinks start at $995 for anything smaller than 16 by 16 feet and go up from there. If the customer gives the okay, we build a frame—a rectangle made from planks of wood, which can be reused year after year (my parents still have the one we built for my birthday in their yard). Once it’s cold enough, we fit the frame with a tarp liner and start filling it with water from the customer’s hose. It takes about 12 hours to fill the entire rink, but the extra water usually costs just $80. Finally, Mother Nature takes its course and you’re left with a skating rink.

“Our goal is to build 200 rinks by the end of the season. Besides family members, we have two full-time employees, a geology student and an industrial design student, and my dad just trained two more (my old man technically works for me now). I’ve made sure that everyone on our team is young and personable, so that we’re spreading positivity. That’s really important to me.

“At the end of every job, I spend some time chatting or sharing a coffee with the customer. We’re a family business, and I want everyone to feel like they’re part of the family. It’s also my favourite part of the job: hearing from moms and dads that their kids are inside watching from the window, jumping up and down with excitement.

“That’s why we do this. It’s so rewarding to help create joy in a time of such isolation. Covid has next to no silver lining, but we’re embracing the fact that people are looking for safe, creative ways to have fun. So many parents want to throw money at us because their teen’s hockey season was called off, or because they want to get their children off their phones, or because they want to be able to say, ‘My kids could skate before they could walk.’

“I think every child should learn how to skate. To me, it feels like a rite of passage. It helps create community, too. When you can skate, you can join a hockey team, go to the rink with your friends or make new ones playing pickup. I have so many fond memories on the ice, and I would have hated for Covid to rob the younger generation of the chance to make great memories of their own.”