Unfortunately, NHL arenas are not dedicated solely to hockey, and the ice is removed at least once a year to accommodate extended events. "If you're in Madison Square Garden after the circus," says St. Louis Blues center Doug Weight, a onetime Ranger, "the place smells like crap and there are ruts in the ice like in a front lawn." For single-day events, such as basketball games and concerts, arena crews lay an insulated plywood or fiberboard floor over the ice, allowing Shaq to slam and Shania to jam. In the tug-of-war between Roenick's canvas and an arena's economic needs-Monet versus money, as it were—hockey loses every time. Soda and beer often seep through the floorboards, a nightmare for ice crews. At each stop on the 2001 Britney Spears tour, two tons of water was dumped onto the stage as part of her act, and at NHL arenas some of it went through the flooring. Oops, she did it again.
Of all the variables affecting arena ice-humidity, arena temperature and air currents, ice temperature, water composition and the competence of the rink manager and Zamboni drivers—the stress of an arena schedule jammed with nonhockey events is most significant. The NBA wants the arena temperature around 70�, the NHL wants it at 64�. Ice-show skaters prefer the ice temperature in the mid-to high 20s, the NHL maximum is 24�. With various demands from performers and the continuous reconfiguring of the arena floor and surrounding seating, there often is not enough time to groom the ice properly for hockey, to create the kind of surface, journeyman skater Chris Taylor says, "where you take a few strides and feel like you're going 100 miles per hour."
"The best ice anywhere is in Europe," says Colorado Avalanche right wing Teemu Selanne, a Finn. "That's a big reason why European guys who come over here usually skate so well. The game is faster there, and they're better skaters, a lot because of the ice. They don't have other events in the buildings like they do here. It's all hockey."
Madison square garden, the Grand Central Station of arenas, tied for 18th in ice-quality ratings compiled by the NHL through the first 300 games of this season—after each game one player per team and one on-ice official rate the ice from 1 to 5 in six categories (box, above)—but anecdotally the place ranks near the bottom. Historically the Garden, which recently added the Zamboni misting system and a new thermal floor covering that does a better job of protecting the ice during non-hockey events, has had bad ice, often with ruts that have caused numerous injuries. Rangers defenseman Dale Rolfe was forced to retire in 1975 after his skate blade got caught in a hole and he severely fractured his ankle. No ice-related injury is more infamous than Rangers center Ulf Nilsson's shattered ankle on Feb. 25, 1979. As New York Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin was about to check Nilsson in the corner, Nilsson pivoted and his skate got stuck in a rut. Potvin splattered him, and Nilsson was out for three months.
"The Rangers' inability to win Cups, despite often having great talent, has a lot to do with their ice," says former NHL forward Murray Wilson, one of the league's best skaters when he played in the 1970s. "Give mat ice to world-class athletes who depend on their ability to skate and handle the puck, and you might as well put them on an outdoor pond."
The conditions at any arena are the same for both teams, but the impact of bad ice is highly personal. For a finesse player like Selanne, who depends on his soft hands and quick feet, the move to Colorado (good ice) from San Jose (bad ice) might, one NHL coach estimates, result in five more goals for him over a season. For a goalie like the Vancouver Canucks' Johan Hedberg, sticky ice prevents him from easily sliding across the crease into his butterfly position. Numerous Florida Panthers say that the soft ice at the Office Depot Center has contributed to a host of groin injuries over the years.
The ice condition also plays a part in coaching strategy. As the ice deteriorates during a period and pucks start wobbling drunkenly, penalty killers attack the points more vigorously. Also, passes and plays suffer as the ice worsens, and games degenerate into the dump-it-in, chip-it-out yawnfests that bedevil the NHL. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman became incensed whenever one of his players took a penalty in the closing seconds of a period because, after intermission, the opposing team would have a power play on fresh ice.
"In Dallas we knew that in October or May we were going to play a very conservative game after 10 minutes of every period," says Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock, who coached the Stars from 1996 to '02. "Our team took advantage of tough ice conditions. We'd change our counterattacks. The players would remind themselves of that on the ice. I remember Colorado coming in during the playoffs and complaining about [the ice]. People were psyched out."
In 1997 the NHL hired Craig, the rink guru in Edmonton, to address leaguewide ice issues, and the NHL has since made a concerted effort to improve playing conditions. Among the corrective measures: shortening the pregame warmup from 20 minutes to 16, allowing only starters on the ice before the beginning of the second and third periods, shoveling snowy buildups around the benches and nets during TV timeouts, fining teams whose on-ice promotions extend into the last 12 minutes of intermission, organizing leaguewide operations meetings to exchange ideas, and encouraging rink operators to take ice-making courses given by the Ontario Recreation Facilities Association and its USA Hockey affiliate, STAR. Currently eight certified ice technicians work in NHL arenas; another 24 are nearing certification.
The biggest success story may be the ice at GM Place. Even after the NBA Grizzlies fled to Memphis in 2000, the ice in humid Vancouver remained problematic, prompting Jason Hartley, the Canucks' director of engineering, to prove a long-held theory. In 2000 Hartley asked the ice technicians at NHL arenas with so-called good ice to have their flood water chemically analyzed. Hartley was looking for something that might toughen the almost pure Vancouver water. With the information he collected and the help of a microbiologist, Hartley developed a powder that essentially adds impurities to the arena's water. Since Hartley put his product on the market in February 2003, Rite-Ice, which is now used in four NHL arenas, has caused a sensation—and not only because a suspicious customs agent held up a shipment to Anaheim's Arrowhead Pond for a few days. (In plastic bags the stuff looks as if it were produced in Medell�n, not Vancouver.) "I can't give you the formula," says Hartley. "It would be like giving you Colonel Sanders' secret recipe." At the start of 2001-02, GM Place ice ranked 23rd in the NHL ratings. Through 300 games this season, it was tied for third.