For the Finneran family of Andover, assembling their backyard hockey rink is a rite of passage heading into winter, as tried-and-true as holiday leftovers.

"We typically put ours up the weekend after Thanksgiving, which takes about two days," Lisa Finneran of South Main Street said. "My husband and three teenage sons have it down to a science." 

Thanks to the unpredictable science of weather, the Finnerans' rink has joined hundreds throughout the area in being transformed into puddles of slush this year.

"For this winter, there is certainly a component of climate change in the mix," said Michael J. Ventrice, meteorological scientist at the Weather Company, an IBM Business. "Over the past 10 years, we are no longer seeing the amplitude of cold air masses that we used to see 30 or 40 years ago." 

That trend was particularly evident from December through February, traditionally the coldest months of the year. According to local statistics from Weather Underground, nighttime temperatures dropped below 20 degrees only nine times this year, and never three nights in a row.

"This winter pattern was driven by what is known as the stratospheric polar vortex, or SPV, which sets up every winter," Ventrice said. "This year was record strong, according to some statistics, which caused a stronger-than-normal, west-to-east, jet stream flow locking up arctic cold air over the North Pole."

With temperatures routinely in the upper 30s, while flirting with the 40s and 50s, backyard rinks never stood a chance.

Henry Gourdeau, also of South Main Street, took his home rink down three weeks earlier than planned.

"The rink completely melted in early January, which never happened before," said Gourdeau, the father of two young sons.

"Maybe we got 10 or 12 days of good skating in where you should be able to get in 2 1/2 or three months' worth."

A rink full of water means the loss of countless hours of physical activity that kids need, he said.

"The nice thing about having one of these is the unstructured play time for the kids and their friends," said Gourdeau, as he pointed to a huge rectangle of discolored grass where his rink once sat. "My guys (would) get out there before school sometimes." 

Financial cost is also a factor.

The Finnerans' rink is 70 by 40 feet. For a rink that size, the average cost of a liner is $200. Add to that an additional $350 for the more than 9,000 gallons of water needed to flood the rink. Plus, there's the painstaking process of keeping the ice surface clear of leaves and snow.

"I've got 2-by-12s for the boards, 18 or 20 of them, with floodlights off the top of the house and back deck," Gourdeau said. "I even built a subfloor, which is 20 more sheets of plywood, to try and mitigate the depth of the water in the low end."

Most homeowners don't have a flat lawn, which requires extra finagling and even greater expense. Despite a shaky dollars-to-rink time ratio, these diehards have no regrets.

"Do I think I got my money's worth this year? Probably not," Finneran said. "This year was a little bit of a bust, but it's provided us a lot of fun over the last 10 years."

"The skates before school, weeknights after dinner, they make it all worthwhile," Gourdeau said. "We got the most out of it, you know, every chance we got."

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