Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

One family slides into action to create an outdoor ice rink

by Joel Tansey

Staff Writer

After a long day of Christmas Eve celebrations with seven of their eight children, five of whom were visiting from overseas, Christoph and Satoko Odermatt got to work.

After the kids had all gone to bed, the couple dressed, headed out into the frigid Hokkaido winter and began to spray water with a hose on a large flat area of snow that had been meticulously packed down over the past few weeks.

They would spray for five or six hours in shifts, building centimeters of ice on top of each other.

By Christmas morning their children were lacing up their skates and shooting, passing and stickhandling their way around the 60-by-30-meter rink as their satisfied, and surely exhausted, parents watched and took videos.

So what compels husband and wife to spend Christmas outdoors spraying water in temperatures cold enough to turn damp hair into icicles?

Certainly the look of excitement on their kids’ faces and a sense of accomplishment are factors, but after seven years, the Odermatt tradition is about even more than that.

“It’s just something I have to do,” Christoph says during an interview with The Japan Times in late February.

For the 56-year-old doctor with a Swiss father and Japanese mother, his love of hockey originated while growing up in Kanagawa Prefecture. Christoph has fond memories of watching Olympic hockey — sometimes Japan vs. Switzerland in the tournament’s B division — and checking National Hockey League scores in The Japan Times.

However, his mother saw hockey as a brutish sport and opted not to put Christoph in an organized program.

“She didn’t want me to start playing hockey and lose all my teeth and all that,” Christoph recalls, laughing.

His passion for the game reached new heights when he enrolled at Boston College and got a firsthand look at the fervent college hockey culture of the U.S. Northeast.

Years later, Christoph and Satoko, who were married in 1994, were living in Okinawa when they decided to put their oldest child, Lukas, in a hockey program based out of a rink near Naha.

The couple’s seven other children would eventually follow in their oldest sibling’s footsteps.

Call them Japan’s answer to Canada’s Sutters.

Lukas, now 24, has retired from competitive hockey after repeated injuries. Andrea, 21, plays for the Zurich Lions in Switzerland with aspirations of one day making the national team, while Markus, 18, is playing junior hockey in the U.S. and hopes to play for an NCAA Division I school. Thomas, 17, Nicolas, 16, and Titus, 14, are all enrolled at the Canadian International Hockey Academy based out of Rockland, Ontario. The youngest two children, Sophia, 12, and Darius, 9, have also taken to the game and hope to one day skate down the same path as their older siblings.

As hockey became an increasingly significant part of the children’s lives, the family began to consider a move away from the often mushy ice in steamy Okinawa for the winter wonderland that is Hokkaido, a move that would give their kids a chance to play against higher-level competition.

The couple began searching for property with a primary goal in mind: To find land suitable for an outdoor rink.

“Of course I got this idea mainly from Canadian families and American Minnesota and Massachusetts families. … (I thought) why can’t I do that here? It’s cold and it only takes hard work,” Christoph says.

An ideal location would have numerous nights where the temperature drops below minus 10 degrees Celsius, little snowfall and, of course, plenty of space.

They eventually settled on a property in Jozankei Onsen, a tourist spot about an hour’s drive from central Sapporo. They moved in five years later and the dream of a backyard rink that would make Walter Gretzky proud was alive and well.

There were doubters.

In the lead-up to the family’s move to Hokkaido, Christoph asked the hockey community in the area what they thought of the idea of a backyard rink.

“Everybody told us it’s impossible. ‘You cannot build a rink in Sapporo’ and ‘it’s hard work and you can’t do it.’ People told me that,'” he recalls. “I just had to do it.”

As winter approached in 2012, Christoph and Satoko defiantly put their dream into action.

First, they cleared weeds from a large gravel area. The first snowfall came early that year, allowing them to get an early start on building the rink’s base.

Their next task was to pack the snow down as hard as possible. Using the machinery and manpower they had available to them, Christoph drove his car back and forth over the snow and enlisted his kids to pack it down further with shovels.

Then the skies cleared, the temperature dropped and the watering could begin.

After the first night of spraying led to a bumpy, uneven mess, lower temperatures and an all-nighter on the part of Christoph and Satoko led to success. They had about 5 centimeters of hard ice over a surface that’s half the size of a regulation rink.

On Christmas Eve of 2012, the couple’s eight kids laced up their skates and the real fun began.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing — Christoph recalls one particularly warm winter when the rink was only usable for two weeks — but the family puts in the work each year and typically has usable ice for two months, sometimes more.

Christoph laments that this year’s rink may only have a couple more weeks left before it begins to melt away.

“It’s the worst time for me because I’d like to have the winter last forever. Of course in Hokkaido people are just waiting for the spring to come, but I just wish the winter lasted a little bit longer,” he says. “If the snow melts and the ice melts, then it’s time for a different sport … and we wait for November or December again.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5