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CHAMPAIGN – Don Hiles grew up in northern Illinois where winter was not only tolerated but celebrated.

"My four brothers and I, we grew up playing hockey all winter. All the neighbors played it. Everybody played hockey up there. Nobody was any good at it, but that's what we did in the winter," said Hiles, who grew up in the Aurora area but now lives in Champaign and makes furniture at the University of Illinois mill shop.

He can also make a splendid ice skating rink in the backyard of his home a few blocks from Central High School.

"Back in Aurora, lots of people did this in their yards," he said.

"You just form it up like you were going to pour concrete, then you take a big tarp, lay it down and fill it up with water," said Hiles. "It takes a lot of water. I have no idea how much but it took about two days of running the hose."

Add a little warming house built off the side of the garage, some twinkle lights in a tree arching over the ice, Christmas lights in the bushes around the rink and, voila! – Champaign's version of the Rockefeller Center ice rink.

Only smaller. The Hiles Center ice is about 8 inches thick but only about 50 by 60 feet.

"I have to tell all the young guys (playing hockey), just hit it very softly or you'll never see the puck again," he joked.

Hiles built his first backyard rink last winter and enjoyed about six weeks of skating.

"When I did this last year the neighbors were like, 'That's not going to work. What are you doing out there?'" he recounted. Soon many of them were skating on the rink, along with Hiles' wife, two daughters and many of their friends.

"We used to own a cabin out by Kickapoo State Park," said Hiles' wife, Babette, "and it was on a lake. We used to skate out there a lot.

"And when I was little we used to skate out on a pond in the country. But this is a lot better. There are indoor bathrooms just a few steps away.

"When we would go out to the pond you would be out there for hours and it was so cold. Now we can step out the door, skate for 20 or 30 minutes and then go back in the house. I think this is better."


Places to skate

You can ice skate in East Central Illinois, but for now the best place is going to be indoors.

If you want to skate in Danville, your best bet is the David S. Palmer Arena.

In Champaign-Urbana, it's the Ice Arena at the University of Illinois.

Doug Ahrens, public works director in Danville, said the city has no pond or lake where people are permitted on the ice.

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of desire for outside skating. The Palmer Arena seems to satisfy those who want to go ice skating," he said.

For more information about open skating sessions and lessons at the arena, go to

Outside the city, there are opportunities for skating and ice fishing for those who enjoy braving the cold temperatures.

Ken Konsis, director of the Vermilion County Conservation District, warned skaters to be cautious on any ice. The lakes in the conservation district's parks may have thinner ice toward the edges, he said.

The district includes Lake Vermilion in Danville, Lake Mingo at Kennekuk County Park west of Danville and Willow Pond at Forest Glen Nature Preserve east of Westville.

Konsis said mostly ice fishermen seek out those spots, but there are some occasional skaters, too.

At the UI, the Ice Arena has public skating times scheduled. Those times are listed on the arena's Web site

The ice still is not thick enough for skating at Urbana's Crystal Lake Park or Champaign's Kaufman Lake, park district employees said Thursday.

Skating will remain prohibited at Kaufman Lake until the park district can figure out a way to separate skating safely from nearby construction, said Jim Spencer, director of operations for the Champaign Park District.

The News-Gazette






Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).