Jan. 20—The more than 2,700-square-foot ice hockey rink in Ken Kieffer's Indiana Township backyard is a far cry from the first rink he made as a kid.
"It was a dam in a creek that flowed into Pine Creek," said Kieffer, 46, a plumber who grew up in Shaler.
He was in fourth grade then.
Now, he's in his 15th year of making his backyard into a yearly winter classic for his family and neighbors. And it gets a little better each year.
"It was out of boredom — the winters are long here and there wasn't much to do — and I wanted to teach my boy how to skate," Kieffer said.
Kieffer never got to play hockey on that rink in the creek because his family moved, but his love of hockey remained.
Now, he and his wife, Terri, have three children: a daughter and two hockey-loving sons.
Terri Kieffer doesn't ice skate but supports her husband's winter hobby and hockey passion by cheering from the sidelines, supplying food and drinks and stoking the fire in the nearby burn barrel.
"This is his project," she said. "I think we're the only family around here rooting for the cold temperatures."
Kieffer never got to play competitive ice hockey as a kid, but he's making up for it with his sons, both of whom play on teams.
Kieffer's first backyard rink was smaller, and he learned the hard way that keeping the rink's waterproof liner intact is paramount.
"Liners aren't cheap, and I found out it's easier to buy a new one each year instead of trying to reuse them," Kieffer said.
The family spends about $1,000 annually to create the 46-by-60-foot rink surrounded on three sides by wooden "boards" that aren't as sturdy as those at real hockey rinks but help keep critters off the ice.
Kieffer repurposes materials and stores them in a shed on his property during the off-months.
The water bill to fill the rink is about $400 to $600, and Kieffer likes to keep the ice depth at 3 to 8 inches.
Normally, it takes a day or two to fill the rink. Then the Kieffers wait for Mother Nature to do her thing.
"We're so excited it finally froze up. It's been warm this winter," Terri Kieffer said.
Their younger son, Jesse, 11, who plays for the Pittsburgh Aviators, learned to skate in his backyard.
"It's been really fun, and my friends love it. I'm proud of it and my dad, because I can practice here without having to go to a rink," Jesse said.
Kieffer has no plans to stop his winter hobby.
"The yard isn't exactly even," said Kieffer, who still skates and plans to keep the winter ice rink going until his "knees give out."
Kieffer has persevered with his annual rink tradition despite suffering from a nonmalignant brain tumor.
"He's had three brain surgeries. It's not cancer, but there's no cure and it just keeps growing," Terri Kieffer said. "When he was going through brain surgery one year, our neighbors put the rink up for him."
The Kieffers' rink has grown along with their three children: daughter Savannah, 9; Jesse; and Samuel, 15.
Over the years, the rink got bigger, better and sturdier, with Kieffer self-taught and often putting his plumbing knowledge to use.
He even has his own version of an ice-grooming Zamboni — a "Homeboni," he calls it — used to smooth the ice between practices, with a warm-water hose attached that runs from the garage.
The current version of the rink was built four years ago. This year, it features blue and red lights beneath the ice.
Carson Whitling, 11, of Mars practiced there Wednesday and said the rink is cool.
"I love scooting and skating around. I want one of these in my backyard," said Carson, a hockey player for five years. "Playing here is a little tougher than practicing indoors because the ice isn't that smooth."
Carson's mother, Jen Whitling, stood near the fire to keep warm and watch the kids practice.
"He's the coolest dad ever," she said of Ken. "The kids loved him before this rink, but this puts him over the top. It's great bonding and practice time. It brings people from all different communities together."
Carson Myers, 11, of Mars has a pond in his backyard that sometimes freezes. He said he was excited to practice outdoors for the first time on the Kieffers' rink.
"I like to just play hockey and get out there and just enjoy. I have been skating for six years, and this rink is beautiful," he said.
Austin Berdik, 11, of O'Hara took to the backyard ice for the first time Wednesday.
"Everything about this rink is awesome. It's a new thing, and I've never been to an outdoor, backyard rink," Austin said. "It's kinda bumpy out here, but it makes it way more fun."
Savannah Kieffer is just learning to skate.
"Everyone says the rink is fun. My dad is a cool dad, and I love the rink and that he gets out there and does all of this for us," Savannah said.
The Kieffers share the rink with the neighborhood and have a "skate-at-your-0wn-risk" sign posted.
"We play fun tournaments and make it a good time," Ken Kieffer said. "They love it, and they just like hearing kids having fun and the pucks banging off the board."
Terri Kieffer said she is grateful for her husband's dedication to providing positive wintertime family memories.
"I used to hate the winter," she said. "Now, our kids look forward to the winter."
Joyce Hanz is a TribLive reporter covering the Alle-Kiski Valley. A native of Charleston, S.C., she graduated from the University of South Carolina. She can be reached at email@example.com