Lutherville family's backyard rink proves if it freezes, they will come


Jon and Andrea Katz's two-story stone home looks like most of the others in their Lutherville neighborhood.

But if you follow the driveway to the back yard and step onto the back patio, you'll have a front row view of a youth hockey game - complete with rock music, hot chocolate intermissions and even a machine that smoothes ice like a Zamboni.

This weekend's record snowfall, however, has caused a brief break in the action as the rink has been buried under more than 2 1/2 feet of snow.

"It's been hard enough just to clean off the driveways and walkways," Jon Katz said.

But he is planning an excavation later this week to free the homemade, 42-by-25-foot rink that has become a neighborhood attraction since freezing weather settled in in late December.

Last year, the rink was set up, but it was never cold enough for it to freeze.

While initially skeptical about the rink, the Katzes' neighbor, Anna Culiner, has been won over this year.

"At first last year, we thought Jon was crazy, but now it is just wonderful," she said looking out over a pack of neighborhood friends and hockey teammates at play last week.

"We can't get any of them off " the ice, Andrea Katz said. The Katzes have a "more the merrier" policy about using the rink, which spawns skating, spontaneous hockey games and hot-chocolate breaks, and has brought the neighborhood closer.

"It's great," said Andrew Katz, a second-grader at the Gilman School, as he grabbed a seat on one of the rink's bordering railroad ties to tighten his skates. "Plus, I don't have to go to [hockey] practice all the time because I can just come here."

His sister, Brittany, 12, spends most of her time on the side of the rink practicing spins while dodging stray pucks and tennis balls. But the lacrosse and field hockey player isn't afraid to grab a hockey stick and get into the mix.

"The boys don't bother me," she said.

Brittany's other brother, Matthew, 4, balances himself with his stick and eyes a bouncing puck. He hardly looks like somebody who laced up ice skates for the first time in early last month.

"He couldn't even stand up" when he started, Andrea Katz said. "Now he's out here for hours."

Jon Katz, a physician, bought the heavy-duty plastic lining for the rink and the railroad ties last year, and enlisted the help of a few neighbors to set things up.

"My son has played ice hockey, so I thought it would be a great chance for him to practice," he said. Andrew, 8, plays goalie for the Mites travel team of the Baltimore Youth Hockey League.

But as the winter progressed, nothing more than a cold, shallow pool sat behind their house.

"I can't tell you how sad it was last year," Jon Katz said. "The kids were so disappointed."

"We'd look out here every morning," said Brittany, a sixth-grader at Roland Park Country School. "'It's not frozen yet ... It's not frozen yet ... ' We were really bummed."

Jon Katz decided to try again this year and had the rink filled by a swimming pool company in mid-December, hoping the water would freeze and his children would learn a valuable lesson.

"I figured that it would be a good chance to show our children that patience pays off," he said. "It's been frozen solid since around Dec. 20, so that's about seven weeks of skating."

"It's been a fluke to have a winter like this," said Andrea Katz. The average temperature last month was 28 degrees, more then 10 degrees colder than last year, according to the National Weather Service.

But even the seven solid weeks of skating wasn't enough for Jon Katz. With winter's early sunsets, he wanted the children to be able to skate longer.

So he redirected his home's outdoor lights away from the patio so the family can skate after dinner.

He keeps the ice smooth with a makeshift Zamboni, which attaches to their garden hose and "keeps the ice smooth as glass for the next day."

Of course, the rink's one drawback this year, he said, has been having to shovel off all of the snow. Now he's looking at more than 2 feet that must be scraped off so skating can continue .

And then there's the inevitable change in the weather.

Looking over a crowd of red-noses and smiling faces, Jon Katz said, "It's really going to be a shame when it warms up."

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