‘The Backyard Classic’ on The Ice @ Canalside celebrates hockey, winter, and philanthropy
12th annual event began on a homemade rink in Amherst
When a group of high school buddies decided to host a hockey tournament on a backyard ice rink in Amherst, no one expected that within a dozen years it would evolve into a giant, family-friendly outdoor event in downtown Buffalo, with approximately 100 teams raising thousands of dollars for local charities.
This weekend, Canalside — which didn’t even exist when the first puck was dropped in 2008 — hosted “The Backyard Classic” for the third consecutive year. In 2020, more than 700 players, a loose organization of approximately 50 volunteers, and hundreds of spectators participated in the 12th annual event — a three-on-three tournament featuring six skaters per team, a goalie defending a full-sized net. It is open to males and females of all age brackets.
“Hockey is part of Buffalo’s history, and the tournament brings the community together,” said Chris Taggart of Williamsville, tournament director. “People love the sport, and there’s nothing better than taking the game back to its roots by playing outdoors. It’s a real hockey experience. Other tournaments use shinny hockey nets with no goalies. We have goalies and referees and scorekeepers.”
After several years of changing venues, the tournament has found a home at Canalside.
“I believe that Canalside is the pinnacle of Western New York’s outdoor attractions,” Taggart said. “I still have to pinch myself. This thing literally started in our backyards and now it’s held at Canalside.”
Yet Taggart wasn’t part of the inaugural tournament. That began when Nick Penberthy, then a sophomore at Williamsville North High School, hatched a fundraising idea with his family.
The Early Years
“My parents said I needed to volunteer or come up with some idea to give back to the community,” said Penberthy, now 26. “I had been playing hockey my whole life and we had a rink in the backyard, so I decided to run a tournament there with some friends to raise money for Hasek’s Heroes.”
Penberthy’s mother, Robin, contacted the charity organization founded by former Buffalo Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek. Together, they worked out details. Hasek’s Heroes, launched in 2001, provides equipment, instruction, and ice time, allowing children in need to play hockey.
“The first year, we had four teams and raised a couple hundred bucks,” Penberthy recalled. “The second year, we added more players. There were friends from Williamsville North and a couple other Williamsville schools. We had an eight-team tournament and my rink was at capacity.”
Around this time, Taggart learned about the event and wondered how he could help.
“I was sitting and having coffee in my family room watching Channel 2 News one morning,” Taggart said. “Heather Ly was doing an interview with Nick in his backyard. I was looking out my window at the rink that I shared with a neighbor. I started thinking maybe we could team up and do something bigger.”
Taggart grew up in the Northtowns, graduating from Williamsville South High School in 1984. Today, at 53, he is father to three teenage daughters and works as a sales manager for an Australian steel firm. Back in 2009, his family and other neighborhood kids skated on the rink they maintained in The Village Green area of Amherst.
“I just felt compelled because I had a rink in my backyard that wasn’t being used like it should be,” Taggart said. “I’ve had a good life, never really faced any adversity, and was lucky enough to score a couple of good jobs and stay in Buffalo. I’ve had a lot of privileges that others don’t have. This was a way to give back.”
Taggart contacted Penberthy with the idea that they could add Taggart’s rink to the mix, doubling the size of the tournament.
“Nick’s family lived over near Glen Oak Golf Course,” Taggart said. “I went to his house to talk about working together. It was awkward at first, because I was about the same age as Nick’s parents. But once we got past that, we all became great family friends.”
Penberthy recalled being introduced to Taggart.
“He lived about ten minutes from my house,” he said. “Once he came on, we had a second rink. We got to know each other real well. He’s very well connected in the community and is a great people person.”
The following year, Penberthy and Taggart each hosted 12 teams on their respective rinks, tripling the size of the tournament. Between entry fees and securing sponsors from local businesses, The Backyard Classic raised $13,000 for charity. After that success, the pair considered ways to grow the event even further. Penberthy credits Taggart for such successes.
“He’s the reason we were able to expand as fast as we did,” Penberthy said.
The Tournament Grows
After a few years on homemade rinks, the 2012 Backyard Classic moved to Angry Buffalo at The Rose Garden, a Williamsville restaurant on Wehrle Drive, whose property held space for four sheets of ice. A new venue would provide greater visibility.
“When we started, I kind of knew the event would be popular and I’d be able to fill up my backyard rink,” Penberthy said. “The proving ground was at The Rose Garden when we were able to set up four rinks. We got a website going, began online registration, and expanded to let adults play too. We had to maintain those rinks by snowblowing and keeping them up so they’d be ready for the tournament. Chris knew the guys from Pace Rinks, and they got involved. Those were the big years in terms of realizing what the tournament could be and showing that interest was there.”
Pace Landscaping and Ice Rinks, located in Blasdell, specializes in building outdoor rinks around Western New York during the winter. Mike Pace began landscaping in 1988, and added a seasonal rink business in 2008.
“Chris (Taggart) contacted us years ago,” Pace recalled. “The first year we joined, they built backyard rinks and we helped get them up to speed. Then we built the rinks at The Rose Garden for a few years.”
Pace Ice Rinks developed a unique resurfacing system using rink rake fed by a self-contained 500-gallon hot water tank.
“The best way to describe it is like ChemLawn, with those big hoses,” Pace explained. “We can stretch out a hose 500 feet, then turn the system on. Cold water in the tank is converted to hot water, and our rink rake distributes water evenly.”
“Using a hot water wand, they can do on-the-spot resurfacing to rinks that are idle or need some help,” Taggart said. “We don’t have to bring out a Zamboni.”
As the event grew, so did the number of volunteers and the commitment required to organize details. Taggart understood the need for additional help.
“The group that’s worked with me has ebbed and flowed over the years, but a robust volunteer network is always key,” he said. “People in the background make sure everything is going as planned.”
In addition to Hasek’s Heroes, money raised over the years has been donated to Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Buffalo Sabres Sled Hockey Foundation. In 2020, after proceeds are tallied, money will be donated to the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital.
Three years ago, Penberthy stepped back from a leadership role. After a decade spent coordinating the tournament, including his years as a college student at SUNY Cortland, he was hired as a teacher outside of Binghamton.
“While I was at college, I still did registrations and made a schedule for the tournament,” he said. “Chris was doing the logistics, the business end, and developing relationships with sponsors. I told him ‘If you want to keep it going, I’ll give you everything I have. This is your thing as much as mine now.’ He’s completely taken it over.”
Penberthy has since returned to Western New York, where he teaches fifth grade and coaches volleyball in Frontier Central schools. It is a different perspective after so many years working on the inside.
“Now I play every year and just enjoy the games,” he said.
Mercury Rises, Mercury Falls
Despite more volunteers, additional rinks, and bigger venues, one concern every year is the weather. Once, it was too warm to make ice, so organizers quickly adapted and staged a three-on-three street hockey contest instead.
“We are totally dependent on the weather,” Taggart said. “Our last year at The Rose Garden, the weather didn’t cooperate. On the other hand, in 2019, we had a light snowfall, which was perfect and added to the ambience.”
Another time, the tournament was relocated to Buffalo RiverWorks because of changing conditions. Sean Green, who formerly ran Hasek’s Heroes, was hockey director there, and thanks to their past relationship, rinks were secured for the tournament.
The Ice @ Canalside, which opened in December 2014, is located on the site that once held Memorial Auditorium. (Center ice from the old Aud is even marked on the rink.) Knowing that footprint hosted professional hockey for generations, Taggart leaped at the chance when Canalside representatives contacted him about hosting The Backyard Classic.
“Somebody from Canalside attended one of our events,” he said. “They were interested because of the family atmosphere that we have. They had run open skate and broomball, but never anything hockey oriented.”
In addition to being a popular downtown attraction, Taggart recognized that Canalside’s rink would be less prone to weather concerns.
“Refrigeration doesn’t fix everything, but we can still have a game if the temperature climbs to the 40s or is pushing 50 degrees.”
Taggart then reached out to his deep network of contacts to address logistical issues. An old high school friend, John Hewson of City Fence, was brought on board to install netting above the railings so spectators would be safe. Pace Ice Rinks agreed to set up moveable boards to divide the massive rink into nine smaller rinks, allowing skaters to play cross-ice. Chuck Vallone of DiVal Safety Equipment supplied t-shirts and equipment.
Each year, new skaters are welcome. Many teams play in The Backyard Classic annually. One skater who keeps coming back is Greg Kruppa, 29, of Eden. His team, “The Goon Squad,” has competed for the past five years.
“None of the guys on my team ever played organized hockey, but we did play pond hockey,” he said. “So we were thrilled to make it to the playoffs last year, and hope to build on that. We play in a few different tournaments each winter, and I really like the way this one is set up. I like the full sized nets, and that you can have six players on a team. Each game is roughly 30 minutes, so it’s good to have extra skaters because you get tired out there.”
Kruppa admires Taggart’s organizational skills and commitment to detail.
“Chris is super down-to-earth,” he said. “Whenever I email him a question, he emails right back. Another thing I like is that you’re guaranteed to play three games, and they’re usually within a time so you aren’t sitting more than a half hour. That’s not the case in other tournaments. Plus all the money raised goes to a great cause.”
A dozen years after its creation on a homemade ice rink, The Backyard Classic has become a cornerstone of winter in Western New York.
“The thing I love about this tournament is that it’s creating memories for life,” Taggart said. “There are a lot of really good things going on in this community and we’re just another one of them.”
© story 2020 by Jeff Schober