Marc Kohn spent nearly $40,000 and 400 hours building a hockey rink behind his house in rural Poolesville, Md., a winter twist on “Field of Dreams.”
He longed for his childhood days in Boston, skating on neighborhood ponds for hours. And he wanted to honor his stepdaughter Melanie Osborne, a lifelong hockey fan who recently died.
Kohn, 51, called his backyard project Mel’s Rink, hung her name in Christmas lights and invited town residents to play. Since opening two weeks ago, dozens of kids and adults have zipped around the synthetic ice for free.
But this week county inspectors showed up — without their skates. Now Mel’s Rink is in jeopardy.
“It’s a lovely idea, and we understand it’s a labor of love, but it has to be the right place for it,” said Diane Schwartz Jones, with Montgomery County’s department of permitting services.
The problem: The rink, set on a rolling field of grass in his own backyard and built atop dozens of wooden shipping pallets, is in the agricultural reserve, which allows homes but isn’t zoned for public uses. County officials issued Kohn a violation and told him to take down lights above the rink and a Facebook page where he posted skate times and other news.
Jones wants to meet with him to discuss the rink’s future, but it seems clear people won’t be allowed to just show up anytime to skate. Those who have already discovered the rink will likely want the inspectors in the penalty box.
“What he did is a ridiculously selfless act,” said Dan Levine, watching his two sons skate in their Backstrom and Ovechkin Capitals jerseys. “I do sales for a living. I’m out a lot. You run across people who don’t know how to be nice anymore. You look at this, this could be the most giving thing you would ever see in a community.”
The rink is about 2,100 square feet, with regulation goals. There are team benches, painted red and blue. The synthetic ice works with skates or shoes. The kids make up their own rules. In an era of ultra-competitive youth sports, Mel’s Rink is a throwback to the days of, “Go outside and play but be back for dinner.”
“I like it,” said Sean Levine, 9, taking a water break. “You can come out with your friends and play a game. It’s fun.”
That’s what hockey was to Kohn growing up. His family had pizza and puck nights — eat pizza, watch the Boston Bruins on TV. As an adult, he brought the tradition to his own family, keeping the pizza, but swapping in the Caps. Melanie became a huge fan.
“We’re a hockey family,” Kohn said. “She loved the Caps. She was just a huge hockey fan.”
But Kohn didn’t play anymore. Working long days and nights in post-production at Discovery Communications, he gained a lot of weight, so he decided to start skating again, teaching lessons in Rockville. He lost weight, left television and wanted a rink of his own — to be part of the community, letting neighbors skate and giving lessons to pay for maintenance costs.
He wanted to be a hockey guy again.
In the meantime, Melanie, an emergency room nurse, got sick. She died in July of respiratory disease at 35. The idea for the rink took on a whole new meaning. Kohn found the perfect spot in Poolesville and got to work this fall, grading the land, scouring the region for shipping pallets, laying the whole rink down himself. He worked day and night, posting pictures of his progress on Facebook.
He missed Melanie. The rink became therapy.
“It gave me something to do every day,” Kohn said. “Every day you’re building something. Doing hard work and banging stuff, you just feel good.”
Melanie’s mom, Jeanne Kohn (she and Marc are divorced), saw the rink recently.
“I think that she would be very touched to know that this rink is dedicated in her memory and that it will be used to serve the community,” Jeanne Kohn said. “Marc has done a great job with it.”
But now he’s worried. He understands the county’s position, but he also hopes they understand his.
“Rules are rules,” he said. “But I don’t want to get rid of it. That wouldn’t be right. This has been such a great thing for the community.”
In just a couple weeks, the rink has spawned new friendships. Kids who only see each other at school find themselves on the same team. Town businesses have offered to pay for additional synthetic ice to make the rink larger. And residents have been generous with donations, dropping dollars into a giant replica of the Stanley Cup.
“Marc really made this place into a great gathering place,” said Steve Smith, slipping around in his shoes with his 10-year-old son Soren.
Sean was zipping around the rink, scoring one goal after another. His little brother Jacob was out there too. Then a game of parents versus kids broke out. The kids scored quickly, with a boy taking on a defender twice his height scoring on a wicked shot.
“Gooaaaal,” he said, raising his stick in the air.
Then the parents retaliated — one goal, then another. The dad in the goalie net pounded his stick on the ice. This went on almost an hour, until it was time for the Levines to go.
“Ten minutes!” Sean’s dad yelled to his kids.
Sean cried, “Nooooooo!”