The Ice Man Cometh
As hockey fans, we’ve stared at it our whole lives. Subconsciously observed, it often goes unnoticed in a sea of players, sticks and skates, merely the vast white canvas on which our beloved game is played. Indeed, our knowledge of the playing surface often barely scratches the surface. There is more involved in making ice than meets the eye, and ensuring that its quality remains up to NHL standards is no simple task.
Despite the fact that it stands a mere 1 1/8 of an inch in height, there are many layers present within the ice surface at MTS Centre. Contrary to what many people think, creating ice is not just a matter of dumping water in the rink and letting it freeze. When laying down water, patience is of the utmost importance if you hope to achieve a high quality of ice. In this case, less is certainly more.
“For much of the ice making process, we use a sprayer cart to apply many fine layers of ice rather than hose flooding, which builds a stronger, denser sheet of ice,” says True North Manager of Ice Operations Derek King.
The interesting progression begins with nothing but a concrete slab, and creating the NHL playing surface we have become so familiar with takes King and his staff roughly two days of round-the-clock work.
“We start by bringing the rink floor temperature down to 15 degrees Fahrenheit,” says King. Once we reach that temperature we apply 15 cold water spray floods to seal the concrete, and provide a strong base for the rest of the ice.”
The next step is applying the white paint, which creates the bright surface allowing the black puck to be easily visible. This is also applied using the sprayer cart, this time with white powder mixed with the cold water.
“Once we put down the white paint, we continue the cold mists until the ice is ¼ of an inch thick,” says King. “We then apply lines, circles, dots and creases, which are all painted. Once these are completed we position the logos on the ice, and carefully seal them into the surface by misting.
After there is a safe amount of ice above the logos, King and his team will switch over to hot water, and continue the misting process until there is ½ an inch of ice above the lines and logos. At this point the Zamboni makes its first appearance, as it is used to apply hot water floods until the ice is at its acceptable level of 1 1/8 of an inch.
As meticulous and time-consuming as it is to make ice in this fashion, the difficult part for King and his staff is ensuring that the ice remains in perfect condition for each Jets game. Temperature and humidity are the two main concerns in this regard, and preparation must take place well-before puck drop to ensure suitable ice conditions.
“Humidity is a huge concern,” says King. “We can’t control the conditions outside, but we can control the indoor environment to a large extent. Our targeted humidity at game time is between 30-40%, so if the outdoor humidity is above that – even if it’s cold outside - we will minimize the flow of outside air into the building, and use mechanical cooling to bring the building temperature and humidity to an acceptable level.”
Controlling humidity is a balancing act. With too much humidity, the shavings on the ice absorb the water from the atmosphere, making them heavy, and creating more snow. This leads to ‘slower’ ice. Too little, and the atmosphere pulls water from the ice, creating a different problem.
“It is comparable to putting a tray of ice cubes in the freezer for a month,” says King. “They shrink, because the humidity has been sucked out of them. When this effect occurs on a hockey surface, the ice becomes brittle and chips away.”
“The ice temperature before warm-up is about 18 degrees Fahrenheit, but that will climb as high as 24 degrees during the game,” says King. “The NHL’s standard for maximum temperature at the conclusion of a game is 24 degrees.”
There are many reasons for the increase in surface temperature throughout an NHL game, including the heat created by the large amount of spectators, rink lights, and the 160 degree water being placed on the ice during intermissions by the Zamboni.
“The effects of temperature on the ice are not easily observed by the crowd, but we can notice the changes very easily down at ice level,” says King. “We can see how much snow is being created, how much rutting is occurring, and how the water is freezing after floods.”
MTS Centre is home to numerous non-hockey-related events during the NHL season. For these events, the ice surface is covered up, which can lead to additional challenges for King and his crew.
“The longer the ice is covered up for events, the more you have to build the ice up prior to covering,” says King. “The reason for this is that the ice becomes dehydrated when it is covered up, leading to the loss of some ice. Also, dirt may fall through the floor during events, damaging the top layer of ice. Due to how thin our ice is, we cannot risk having our ice level drop substantially. As a result, we build it up before covering for an event, then when we uncover, we use the Zamboni to shave off the excess ice, bringing it back to a normal thickness.”
King’s protection of the playing surface is justified now more than ever. With the NHL back in town, so too is a higher standard for ice quality. To that end, the league has a system in place for rating the ice in its 30 buildings.
King is acutely aware of what is required of an NHL ice surface. While working at the AHL level since the opening of MTS Centre in 2004, he has remained in close contact with many of the NHL’s Ice Technicians. These relationships, as well as King’s experience led to him being one of few AHL Ice Technicians being invited to help make the ice at the 2011 NHL Heritage Classic at McMahon Stadium in Calgary. This season he was invited to help at the 2012 NHL Winter Classic in Philadlphia.
“It was great to work with a lot of the NHL Ice Technicians, and to see how they do things,” says King. “It was nice to see that even though here at MTS Centre we have not had the NHL experience that they have, we are on par with NHL standards in a lot of things we’ve been doing over the years.”