Preparing the Battlefield

You know that winter smell? That one where the smell of fresh snow and the cold air bites at your nose? That’s my favorite smell, it means there is fresh ice outside. You can get a similar smell right after the ice has been clean between sessions at your local rink .

Once the Zamboni leaves between the doors, it’s the closest you’ll get to hockey heaven.

Once you lace up your skates and the blade glides so smoothly across the ice with that nice slightly crunchy sound.

It doesn’t matter if you’re at your favorite local rink or outside on the frozen pond down the road. Nothing beats that first lap around the ice.

pond-skating

The ice is probably the most important part of what makes hockey the game it is. The process that goes into making sure the players have a nice level clean sheet to play on has its roots in the frozen outdoors.

Now it’s obvious to most people that without frozen ponds and lakes, we wouldn’t have hockey to begin with, but how do they get ready for the game 82 times a year? Well, it all starts with a massive refrigeration unit. No, not like the one you have to keep your milk chilly, but one that has brinewater, also known as salt water, coursing through its veins. The brine water is pumped through an intricate series of pipes under the ice, generally in a concrete slab known as the ‘ice slab’. The water gets chilled to a brisk 16 F and is circulated around the ice slab. The temperature needs to be set manually depending on weather conditions outside the arena. The ice slab sits between the skating surface and a layer of insulation, allowing the ice to expand and shrink as needed. The ice slab is kept at a cool 32 F to ensure that the water on its surface stays frozen. But, beneath the ice slab and the insulation layer, there is a heated concrete layer which is used to prevent the ground beneath the ice from freezing and damaging the skating surface and the rink area.

ice-rink-before

The logistics of making the ice requires a certain expertise. You can’t just flood the rink with water and hope for the best. There are 12-14 layers to an ice surface.

The first layer is generally 1/32″ thick of just plain ole ice. The second is another 1/32″ thickness, except it is painted white. Then a 1/16″ sealing layer followed by a painted layer with the lines and logos. The final layers are put on one after the other, with around 8-10 in total until the ice surface is complete. On average, it takes 12,000-15,000 gallons of water to complete the ice and get it ready for the high speed game of hockey.

That’s just the beginning; the balancing act of maintaining the ice temperature is just as important as the initial setup. Hockey ice is usually around 25 F. Any softer, and players can lose an edge and fall. Any colder, and the ice could chip and gouge. Between periods of play, an ice resurfacer makes sure the choppy, worn layer from the previous period is well groomed and ready for the next period. End to end, the 200′ by 85′ NHL rinks need to be well pampered to ensure the best playing surface possible.

Surfaceuse
Surfaceuse

Before the invention of the machine ice resurfacer, everything was done by hand. The term “hoser” has a popular origin story based in hockey. The losing team would need to hose down the rink after the battle had finished.

In reality, it was scraped, hosed, then squeegeed to ensure the surface was nice and fresh to continue to be played on. Then came the machine we all know today, the Zamboni. Zambonis were created by Frank Zamboni in the 1940’s. He wanted a faster and more efficient way to resurface his rinks. His machine could shave, wash, squeegee, and spray a new layer in a fraction of the time it took to do by hand.

The average life span of an ice resurfacer is around 5 seasons at the NHL level. The ice is resurfaced before the game, after warmups between periods and after the game has been played.

ice-rink

Some cities don’t have the space to accommodate multiple stadiums to house all their sport franchises. What happens if a hockey team shares an arena and they don’t need the ice that night? Generally nothing. The ice is still there under the floor of the other events.

The ice crews will place a layer of insulation on top of the skating surface as protection. They will then lay down an ice deck, generally pieces of plywood, and then lay the needed floor on top of that.

Let’s say a sports arena houses a hockey and basketball team. A hockey game was played the night before, and the basketball team has a game tonight. The ice crew comes in to remove the glass and the boards, cover the ice surface, adjust the refrigeration temperature, line up the ice deck, bring in the basketball floor, add any additional seating, place the basketball hoops in the correct spots, double check the temperature outside the arena, and begin letting the basketball game get under way.

While it seems simple to just lay down some floor, it is a very complicated process. Sometimes, things do go wrong; recently, a Philadelphia 76ers home game had to be postponed when water from the ice surface seeped through the floor and made the surface unsafe for the game to be played.

2012-winter-classic-stadium-view

In 2008, the NHL wanted to bring the game of hockey back to its pond hockey roots by having a televised outdoor game on New Years’ Day. It took quite a few attempts before the NHL’s ice masters figured out the process.

Instead of laying the ice down like they do in indoor arenas, the NHL’s ice wizard, Dan Craig, figured out how to create the surface by spraying a mist down on the area they planned to play on. Craig also needed to double the thickness to two inches to account for natural evaporation. Thermal blankets were used to prevent melting from the sun.

The NHL has had great success with the Winter Classic in the US, but not so much in Canada. The lack of Canadian teams in the early years of the Winter Classic led the NHL to also reintroduce the Heritage Classic to try and bring in more of a Canadian audience. Both Classics are some of the most watched games in recent history.

The speed and excitement of the game are enhanced with the spectacle of the outdoor games. The NHL expanded it outdoor schedule, including more game with the title of the Stadium Series. Sitting in the stands as the sights and sounds of hockey fill the air makes anybody interested in wanting to lace up some skates, grab a few buddies, and hit the ice.

The process is long and tedious to create the ice for hockey. Ice crews and maintainers spend most days working on the surface. From the bottom up, the frozen battlefield is a well groomed and carefully controlled balancing act. Threats of warm weather and other events means that patience is a big priority when it comes to the frozen rinks. Whether it’s inside a small rink or out in a jam packed outdoor stadium, the smell of the ice is sure to make any player feel the need to drop in and romanticize about lifting the greatest trophy in all of sports.


Jim McBride is the “Beyond the Ice” columnist for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can contact him at jmcbride@gnghockey.com

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