Rink serves as tribute to late father of Freeport goalie
On Nov. 15, Freeport freshman goaltender Matt Huston was given the nod to start his first varsity hockey game against section rival Kittanning, a perennial contender in Class A.
The scene inside the Belmont Complex ice arena is a familiar one to him: the ice, sporting an occasional divot; the boards, littered with the freckled scars of black caused by errant pucks; the stands, where his parents, Steve and Pam Huston, sit.
Matt calls the game one of the biggest he has ever played.
“I guess it was just the whole feeling from getting the nod for such a big game,” he said. “It was the excitement from that. ... It made me feel like I had to prove what I could offer to the team.”
Matt was stellar. He stopped 30-of-31 shots through regulation and overtime, helping the Yellowjackets earn a 1-1 tie. It was one of the last times the 15-year-old's father would see him play. On Dec. 9, Steve Huston, a father of four, died of cancer at age 52.
Matt and Steve held a strong bond through hockey. By the time he was 5, Matt was playing the sport. Steve couldn't skate, so he learned how.
“He had never skated before,” Pam said. “He just wanted to be on the ice with Matt as much as he could.”
Matt recalls his father's desire to stay busy around the family's Buffalo Township home, fixing things, paving trails and building everything from tree houses to bike trails for his kids to use.
“It was always him and I doing something,” Matt said. “It always different from one day to the other, but it was always something.”
Eventually, that something was an ice hockey rink.
Matt remembers giddily discussing the possibility of building an ice rink in the family's backyard with his father when he was 9.
“One of my friends on an amateur team I played for always set up a rink in his backyard,” Matt remembered. “We thought it was a cool idea.”
A good idea, but one which took considerable effort to reach fruition.
First, a segment of the Huston family's hilly backyard was bulldozed into a flat plane. Then the outline of the rink, made of plastic, almost knee-high boards and liner, connected by stakes, wire and braces, was laid out, approximately 100 feet long and 60 feet wide. It was filled with water and left to freeze.
Steve built a deck a year later, giving spectators a near-perfect view of the rink. The year after that, a walkway from the deck to the rink was created. Further additions came. Floodlights were attached to trees. A fire pit was constructed. A small sound system was installed.
As many as 20 kids could show up, with teams dictated by numbers and the length of games hinging on the desire to keep playing, rather than rental costs or sunset.
Like clockwork, every November the rink was put up. By early spring it was taken back down. Most of the work was done by Steve: putting up the boards, building the deck, adding the lights, and, particularly, maintaining the rink.
“He was so meticulous with the ice,” Pam said. “I used to call him Mr. Zamboni.”
In September 2011, Steve was diagnosed with brain cancer. That November was the final time he set up the rink himself. In 2012, the family was aided during rink construction by the local hockey community.
Steve was in the latter stages of cancer by that point, but he still watched Matt play as much as he could. He fought the cancer for a year before succumbing to the malignancy.
“I think that he really enjoyed (watching us play),” Matt said. “Even when he wasn't down there trying to play with us, he was still on the deck, or down by the fire.”
Buoyed by a fast start, Matt earned PIHL All-Star honors with a 2.76 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. The All-Star nod is something few — if any — Yellowjackets have accomplished. The rink remains standing, though its seasonal end draws near as temperatures warm.
But come November, Matt knows it'll be time to put the rink back up.
“It feels like a duty,” Matt said, who said that he's hopeful the family will get similar support as it did this year. “I imagine — I know we'll set up the rink every year.”
Stephen Catanese is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.