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Change comes over hockey at a glacial pace, but it appears the game may be entering a modern ice age. Ex-Ranger Phil Esposito, Islander Bryan Trottier and others are praising and promoting a product that is white, hard, waxy and definitely skateable—an alternative to frozen water, be it natural or manmade. Last spring North America's first full-sized plastic ice rink, the Bryan Trottier Skating Academy, opened for business in Port Washington, N.Y. And Esposito, a vice-president of Astro-Ice, an artificial ice made by Skate USA of New York, plans to open his own plastic palace next year on Staten Island, N.Y.
Esposito and Trottier are impressed with plastic ice's durability, low cost and easy upkeep. What they don't like is the grimace on the faces of folks when they hear the words plastic ice. "Our biggest problem is convincing people that it's good," says Esposito.
Artificial ice has a long, checkered past. In the 1890s, cardboard coated with wax was patented as an alternative to ice. Twenty years ago a Wisconsin company had high hopes for Slick—sheets of vinyl that could be rolled over a cement floor and skated on. It was used at a number of exhibitions, and Trottier remembers trying it out in a Saskatchewan department store when he was a teenager. Esposito remembers that he and Bobby Orr skated on an artificial surface at a Boston hotel 15 or 20 years ago: "After about five minutes we said, 'Enough.' " The stuff was too slow.
Although the plastic ice revolution never quite jelled in this country, in Europe, where energy costs for skating rinks can be prohibitive, experimentation with new kinds of alternative ice has been fruitful. Three years ago Trottier's business manager, Bob Thornton, in the course of looking for hockey-related investments, was shown a material called Glice, a plastic ice used in several European rinks. He and Trottier made an inspection tour in Germany and Belgium, visiting six rinks in three days. Trottier was surprised at how fast the surface was—"I was deking in and out of everybody"—and made plans to build his own rink. Meanwhile, Esposito had tried Astro-Ice at a New York hotel in 1983. "I couldn't believe how good it was," he says.
By all accounts today's ersatz ice is much faster than the old, although it's still 5% to 10% slower than the real thing. Proponents claim that that's actually a plus. Beginners find it easier to skate when they don't slip around, and because of the diminished glide, advanced skaters find plastic a training device akin to weighted track shoes.
But to the entrepreneur the greatest appeal of plastic is economic. A plastic ice rink costs about $300,000 to install, far less than a conventional rink. The upkeep—all the plastic needs is occasional vacuuming and spraying with silicone—is a fraction of that of conventional ice.
Both Glice and Astro-Ice surfaces actually consist of numerous modules. Glice is made of a polyethylene compound laminated onto both sides of 2' X 4' plywood panels. Astro-Ice is solid plastic. Each has panels that are laid in a brick interlocking' pattern with imperceptible seams. When one side wears out, the panels can be flipped over and the other side used. At the moment, no one is sure how long the plastic will last. The manufacturer of Glice says the panels can be used for three or four years, and Astro-Ice is guaranteed for five.
The claims made for artificial ice sound suspiciously similar to those made for artificial turf 15 years ago—advantages of cost and convenience, and no downside—which raises the question of whether artificial ice will ever be used for big-time hockey. Esposito foresees a time when the NHL will play on plastic, but Trottier thinks this is less likely, although he sees artificial ice as a wonderful training surface.
Artificial ice fans have grand visions of entire leagues playing on plastic, a boom in the Sun Belt and rinks in every mall and school from Key West to Seattle. But a few rinks, some traveling demonstration models and a couple of basements do not a wave of the future make. Cooler heads will wait and see before they go with the floe.