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THE IMPORTANCE OF ICE
Michael Farber
February 23, 2004
It's the most basic element in hockey, but its maintenance is one of the biggest headaches in sports. Herewith the cold facts on how to make good ice, what the NHL is doing to fix the sorry state of rink surfaces—and what Britney Spears has to do with it
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February 23, 2004

The Importance Of Ice

It's the most basic element in hockey, but its maintenance is one of the biggest headaches in sports. Herewith the cold facts on how to make good ice, what the NHL is doing to fix the sorry state of rink surfaces—and what Britney Spears has to do with it

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RATING THE RINKS

The NHL ranks ice quality at each venue based on reports like the one below from a visiting player

NHL Operations
Report to General Managers

Monthly Average by Each Reporting Group

Games 1-300

Facility

Visiting Team

Home Team

On-Ice offical

Average

Comments

1

Montreal

3.4

4.5

4.3

4.1

100% compliance at home!

2

St. Louis

3.8

4.3

4.3

4.1

3

Philadelphia

3.3

4.1

3.9

3.9

4

Vancouver

3.6

3.7

4.5

3.9

5

Minnesota

3.3

4.0

4.2

3.9

100% compliance at home!

6

Edmonton

4.0

4.0

3.3

3.8

100% compliance at home!

7

Columbus

3.5

3.7

4.0

3.7

8

Calgary

3.3

4.0

3.4

3.6

9

Florida

3.0

4.3

3.4

3.6

100% compliance at home!

10

Colorado

3.7

3.4

3.6

3.6

100% compliance overall!

11

Tampa Bay

3.6

3.2

3.9

3.6

100% compliance at home!

12

New York Islander

3.1

3.5

3.9

3.5

13

Boston

2.7

3.5

4.3

3.5

14

New Jersey

2.6

3.5

3.8

3.3

100% compliance at home!

15

Chicago

2.8

3.5

3.7

3.3

16

Buffalo

2.6

3.4

3.9

3.3

17

Ottawa

3.1

2.6

4.1

3-3

100% compliance at home!

18

Washington

2.7

3.6

3.5

3.2

100% compliance at home!

19

Toronto

3.6

2.3

3.8

3.2

100% compliance at home!

20

New York Rangers

2.2

2.9

4.4

3.2

100% compliance at home!

21

Crolina

3.1

2.5

3.8

3.1

100% compliance at home!

22

Nashville

2.4

3.1

3.8

3.1

23

Los Angeles

2.9

2.8

3.6

3.1

24

Anaheim

2.4

3.1

3.5

3.0

100% compliance at home!

25

San Jose

2.4

2.8

3.8

3.0

26

Phoenix

2.3

2.7

3.9

3.0

27

Atlanta

2.3

3.0

3.3

2.8

28

Dallas

N/A

N/A

3.8

N/A

Only 2 home reports submitted!

29

Detroit

N/A

N/A

4.7

N/A

Only 2 home reports submitted!

30

Pitsuburgh

3.1

N/A

3.8

N/A

No home team reports submitted!

This is our canvas. Our easel. This is how we paint, on fresh sheets of ice.
—JEREMY ROENICK, Philadelphia Flyers center

Whether for a collection of impressionists such as the Colorado Avalanche or a paint-by-numbers outfit like the New Jersey Devils, a clean sheet of ice is one of the loveliest sights in sports. Stark white with geometric splashes of red and blue, it glistens with the beauty of possibility—an invitation for each player to produce a masterpiece.

"Ice is everything," Jeremy Roenick says. "For a player who relies on skating, a fresh, hard sheet of ice probably increases his speed by two steps. Ice is the difference between scoring and not scoring. On a fresh sheet the puck lies nice and flat, and the shooter will get all of it and put it where he wants. If the ice is bad, the puck flips on edge before the pass reaches your stick, taking away a scoring chance. When the ice is good you see better passing, better puckhandling, better games—hockey's beautiful. When the ice is chippy or snowy, and the puck's bouncing and the passes aren't crisp, hockey's real ugly."

No other playing surface is so integral to its sport, so complex to maintain and so misunderstood. NHL players aren't rocket scientists. Or physicists. They are blissfully ignorant of covalent bonds, crystal structure, the symmetry of solid water molecules and the Britney Spears effect (more on that later). All they know is that good ice (hard, dense and slick even at the end of a 20-minute period) is found mostly in places like cold, dry Edmonton, and bad ice (soft, slushy and sticky) is found often, but not exclusively, in warm, humid cities such as Miami. They know that a shoot-in by Ottawa Senators forward Todd White in Atlanta on Nov. 25 hopped crazily past Thrashers goalie Pasi Nurminen for the tying goal in a game that turned around the Senators' season. And that the next night, in Florida, the puck rolled strangely and hit the post on a breakaway by Panthers forward Olli Jokinen in overtime after he had deked New York Rangers goalie Mike Dunham out of position.

Given the generally sorry state of the most basic element in ice hockey—ice-necessity is the mother of invective. As Rangers wing Alexei Kovalev says, "The worst ice? There's probably 30 choices."

The ice is no longer a backdrop to the game but an issue in the forefront. NHL management has tacitly acknowledged the problem in recent years and has aggressively sought answers. Coaches fiddle with their systems to account for ice conditions. Players, fed up with the inconsistency of the ice, no longer mask their disappointment. But before allowing one more player to simply carve up the ice, we should get to the bottom of it. Or one level below.

Beneath the concrete floors in all 30 NHL rinks are computer-operated refrigeration systems. A network of inch-thick steel tubing underlies the standard 200-by-85-foot surface. The tubing carries a saltwater mixture that circulates at a temperature of 10� to 16�. Each year in late August, arena crews begin the 32-to 36-hour task of making ice on those concrete floors, creating a playing surface they will painstakingly maintain for the next eight to 10 months.

Making ice isn't done by turning on a garden hose. There are some standard procedures, plus recommendations from Dan Craig, the NHL's facilities operations manager. Ultimately, however, it's a lot like making chili: Every building operator seasons to taste and circumstance. For example, the ice at Vancouver's General Motors Place is?-of-an-inch to one-inch thick, while the surface at Montreal's Bell Centre is two inches thick to start the season. The ice temperature varies from 20� to 24�, depending on building environment and water quality. And while there's general agreement that the application of thin layers of water creates the densest ice, there is no consensus on the ideal mineral content of the flood water dispensed by the Zambonis.

The ice making begins with a few applications of water, from a Zamboni or a misting machine, that freezes on top of the concrete. After a base of less than an eighth of an inch is created, workers paint the layer white and then seal the paint with another thin layer of ice. The lines, circles, logos and on-ice advertisements are painted next, and then an additional inch or so of ice is added. The temperature of the flood water from the Zamboni ranges from 140� to 170� because when water cooler than 140� freezes, air gets trapped in the ice, making for a poor playing surface.

According to the Zamboni company, 25 of 30 NHL rinks use its resurfacer to maintain their ice; the other five use Olympias. There is an undeniable zen of the Zamboni, which, besides the Stanley Cup itself, is hockey's most recognizable totem. Invented in 1949 in California by Frank J. Zamboni and first used in the NHL at Boston Garden in 1954, the mellifluous Zamboni has inspired band names, songs, websites, bumper stickers. (Recently spotted: MY OTHER CAR IS A ZAMBONI.) Even with top speeds of nine miles per hour and guzzling propane—only Montreal uses a battery-powered Zamboni—it is one sweet ride. As they make between-period passes, two Zambonis release jets of water that clear the snow from the cuts and ruts that accrue. Meanwhile the Zamboni's blade scrapes about [1/32] of an inch off the surface. Finally, fresh ice-making water is sprayed through a kind of sprinkler system called a flutter bar, then dispersed by a terry-cloth towel at the rear of the machine.

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