Inside The Boards

By Randy Gaddo

When an outdoor in-line hockey rink becomes part of a parks and rec department’s facility inventory, there are a host of maintenance issues it will need to know; some are obvious, some not so much. If the rink is covered but open-sided, more unexpected requirements will surface.

In some cases, the rink is placed on new ground, and in other cases it is put on ground previously used for other purposes, such as old tennis courts. Either way, proper preparation of the sub-surface and using a type of surfacing that will not crack or buckle is paramount.

It All Happened So Fast
The city of Weymouth, Mass., began discussing conversion of three unused tennis courts to an in-line and street-hockey rink in early 2014. The proposed conversion of the courts—deemed worn-down and unsafe for use—was estimated at $62,000. The project entailed refinishing the playing surface, installing heavy-duty plastic boards, creating dugout player benches, and installing two goals.

“The tennis courts were very old, they were in disrepair with weeds growing in them, and we had three new courts at another park,” says Steve Reilly, program supervisor at the Weymouth Recreation Department ( He adds that neighborhood street-hockey enthusiasts had set up makeshift boards that were unsightly and unsafe.

“There was much support for the project, led by a group of hockey dads,” he says. “It all happened very quickly.  Funding for the concept was approved in July 2014, the project was completed by December, and a street-hockey league with 300 kids started in spring 2015.” He notes that the league is slated to expand to 700 players this spring.

Reilly explains that the courts were intended primarily for street hockey, with only tennis shoes used; however, in-line skaters use the courts as well. The asphalt-based courts had all the cracks repaired and sealed by professionals; then they were overlaid with a special outdoor-sports court material designed for use by tennis-shoed street-hockey players as well as in-line skaters. Perimeter boards with player boxes were purchased and installed, as were player seating and spectator bleachers.

“One of the issues we face is that the view from the first two rows of the five-level bleachers is obstructed by the boards, so at some point we will have to raise a platform for the bleachers,” says Reilly, noting that if he had to do it over again, he would elevate the bleachers or use clear Plexiglas boards in the viewing area.

In the off-season, the rink is used by ice-hockey skaters using in-line skates to stay in shape. Times are also carved out of the schedule for public-recreational skaters.

Long-Term Maintenance
With that type of heavy use, Reilly says the department expects long-term maintenance issues to include periodic patching and re-coating the rink surface, as well as re-lining it.

He is cautiously optimistic that the asphalt base of the original tennis courts won’t buckle from winter frost, creating hazards for skaters or tennis-shoed runners. “The original courts were there for quite some time, so the ground has settled about all it is going to,” he explains.

That could be true, and hopefully it is. However, in my experience with tennis courts, once the cracks are there, patching and top-coating are only temporary measures. Eventually, those cracks will be back, especially in extreme cold-weather locations. There may be new-and-improved crack sealers and top coating that prolong the life of the courts, but the problem will return.         

However, the Weymouth staff members and elected officials have planned for this issue and presumably will budget accordingly. Future maintenance was at the forefront of discussions. Town council member Michael Molisse, vice chairman of the council’s subcommittee on parks and recreation, notes, “You can throw $30,000 into this park or $50,000 into that park, but if you don’t maintain them, it’s like throwing money out the window.”

Reilly points out that the department installed a system of perimeter boards that pop out in certain sections, enabling them to contract for twice-a year rink surface-cleaning.

“We hire someone to come in with a low-pressure power washer to get all the dirt and grime that builds up,” he says. “Having the pop-out boards enables them to squeegee it all out of the rink, so it doesn’t settle back onto the surface.”

The rink is uncovered in winter, so the power washing is done first thing in the spring before the season begins, and as needed during the season. Reilly says user groups are good about regularly sweeping and blowing dirt and leaves off the rink when they use it.”

One of the side benefits of maintaining the rink in this particular park is that previous incidents of graffiti tagging and other vandalism have been reduced to nearly zero. “Before the rink was built, the park wasn’t that busy, and it tended to attract taggers and other undesirable activity,” Reilly says. “Since the rink came in with all the additional activity, those undesirables have gone elsewhere.”

Asphalt Or Concrete?
Without a doubt, there are many instances where circumstances dictate that people use asphalt as a base for the in-line rink. Usually, it comes down to funding. However, in my experience and in the opinion of experts I’ve consulted with in the past, concrete is the preferable base.

It can be a dizzying experience trying to decide which is best for a base—asphalt or concrete—and there are probably as many opinions as there are experts on the subject.

First, regardless of which base is chosen, the sub-layers must be properly done; if not, the surface won’t last and will become a maintenance nightmare.

No matter what climate you’re in, weather and the impact it has on the ground will eventually affect any outdoor court. However, that effect can be minimized through a variety of construction techniques, such as proper layers, buffers, moisture barriers, compaction, leveling, and a host of other items that an experienced contractor will know.

When I say contractor, I mean someone experienced in building outdoor sports rinks. General contractors experienced in building roads or driveways may not have the knowledge to know exactly what needs to be done.

Hand in hand with hiring a contractor, hire an architect experienced in the minute details of best practices for outdoor-rink sub-surfacing. And ensure that the architectural design contract includes construction management, with frequent on-site inspections by members of the architectural team.

Examining Asphalt
Assuming that the sub-layers are done properly for the individual climate, which is better—asphalt or concrete? Generally speaking, asphalt tends to be less expensive than concrete. If properly applied, it can be an effective base upon which to apply one of the many specialized sport-surface products that are best to skate on and that can withstand the wear and tear that hard skating can cause.

Can you just use asphalt to skate on? The short answer is yes, with several key qualifiers. Asphalt—no matter how smoothly it is applied—is generally a rougher surface to skate on and will tend to wear down skate wheels faster.  Also, it is more sensitive to weather changes; heat makes it softer, thus harder to skate on and tiring skaters more quickly. Cold makes the surface hard and accentuates its roughness. Asphalt tends to flex with the heat and cold, eventually creating cracks and buckles that can make skating difficult or dangerous. Cracks can be filled and repaired, but it is never perfect; buckles are more difficult to repair—some people might say it is impossible without tearing the surface out and starting over.

So, yes, asphalt can be used as the top surface for outdoor rinks, but it’s not preferable.

A Closer Look At Concrete
Concrete generally tends to be more expensive and—if prepared and poured properly—it will typically last longer without cracking or buckling. If the surface layer is smoothed and finished by an expert familiar with the needs of skaters, it can be an effective surface. It’s smooth and hard, it can hold painted lines, and it will resist cracking and buckling. From a maintenance perspective, concrete is normally less of an issue than asphalt.

The downsides include the following: it is more expensive, which can be a show-stopper; it is hard and smooth, so if it gets wet, it can be slippery to skate on, which can mean more slips, falls, and injuries. So, yes, concrete can be used as the top surface for outdoor rinks, but it’s not preferable either.

On The Surface
Most of the pros and cons for asphalt and concrete as a final surface are good if they are used as a sub-surface to be covered by one of the many products in the in-line skate-surface industry. Cracks and buckles in the sub-surface will be visible on top. If the surface isn’t pitched correctly, it will retain water. The difference will be in the skate-ability of the specialized surface.

What to use as the final skating surface on an outdoor rink will vary with the region in which the rink is located. Is it hot, is it cold, is it dry, is it wet; do summer and winter temps vary greatly? So many variables will impact the decision, and the wrong decision can have long-lasting maintenance implications. It is best to get the answers to these questions long before making a final decision.

I am not an expert in this area, but then, neither are most parks and rec staff members. Even in-house engineering staff members normally don’t have specialized knowledge necessary to make sound decisions in this area.

So maintenance managers are wise to be involved in early phases of a rink project and ensure the proper engineering studies are being done on the site, whether it’s a new rink on a new site or redevelopment of an old site.

The key element to success is making sure the rink is done right. Other elements, such as the perimeter boards, player seating, scoreboards, and spectator seating, are very important and deserve equal attention, but not before the rink surface is finished.

Some readers may have different views on this issue and, again, I don’t claim to be the final word on the subject, but I do base my views and suggestions on some experience. So, if you have any ideas or suggestions, please email them to me or the editor, and we’ll get them into the discussion.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned his master’s degree in Public Administration and is now a full-time photojournalist living in Bay Minette, Ala. Reach him at (678) 350-8642 or