Behind the scenes with the ice makers

by Michael Mulhern || AHL On The Beat Archive

On any given evening, tens of thousands of skaters representing all tiers of hockey’s hierarchical spectrum take to the ice in thousands of arenas in virtually every corner of the world.

Whether the occasion of play represents a Stanley Cup Finals contest or a simple game of shinny, one fundamental constant exists within every single venue: the ice surface that makes competitive and equitable play possible.

Unbeknownst to many, quality ice production and upkeep requires perpetual attention to detail and near constant regulation of an arena’s interior environment. This notion is particularly relevant in some of the AHL’s warmer and more humid climates.

According to John Sparks, Vice President and General Manager of the AT&T Center in San Antonio and one of the foremost authorities in the field of ice quality control: “Ice-laying and maintenance is a mathematical and highly-scientific practice that requires consistent adherence to specific preparatory and regulatory guidelines.”

In order to ensure successful and quality ice installation in any arena, and especially in San Antonio’s notoriously humid climate, a uniform set of guidelines must be followed with diligence.

First and foremost, the concrete arena floor must be thoroughly cleaned, as foreign substances including paint, oil and tape, among others, can render certain areas of the surface susceptible warm spots if not removed. Under the concrete lies approximately nine miles of coiled cooling pipes connected to mechanical compressors and many of the aforementioned substances can prevent affected areas of the concrete from maintaining the surface temperature necessary for ice-laying.

Once the concrete has been cleaned, compressor temperature levels are adjusted until the surface level reaches 16 degrees Fahrenheit. A technician will then spray purified water, previously exposed to reverse osmosis and ridded of solids and contamination, to an area to ensure that it freezes.

If successful freezing occurs, the technician will then use a hose or watering wand to manually spray a 400-gallon coat of purified water to cover the entire concrete surface with a thin sheet of ice.

Upon completion of the initial watering, the ice is then “whited in” manually using either a cart with an attached sprayer or a hose with a wand. “Whiting in” is the term used to describe the process of spraying a layer of powder metal oxide paint to “snap freeze” or create transparency in the ice by freezing it so quickly that heat and oxygen escape instantly.

Once the “whiting in” is completed, another 400-gallon layer of water is used to seal the bottom layers and provide a surface for the painting of the necessary circles and lines consistent among all hockey rinks.

The various painted lines and circles of a hockey playing surface are intrinsic components of play and thus their geometrical sizes must be in accordance with league specifications. To ensure the creation of perfect circles and right angles, technicians must next make use of geometry and geometrical tools, including giant rulers and string gauges, to create the outlines of the shapes before they are filled in with metal-oxide-based paint.

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Once the hockey lines and circles have been drawn and painted, large sheets of butcher paper containing ice-ready logo stencils are punctured along their outlines. Next, the stencils are taken to the ice where the holes in the outlines are filled by contractor’s chalk, leaving a dotted-line rendition of the logo underneath on the ice.

The spaces between the dotted logo outlines on the ice are then filled with the metal-oxide-based paint to create the colored logos that fans recognize from their seats and on television. Placements and colors of logos are designated by the league. For instance, the NHL restricts logos in the attacking zones, while the AHL permits them. In addition, use of black paint in logos is prohibited in some areas on account of the fact that it could potentially hide the puck and interfere with play.

In order to prevent possible smudging of the newly painted logos, a highly atomized spray is sprayed into the air and freezes immediately upon establishing contact with the ice. All in all, the painting of the ice requires roughly six hours of labor and two hours of manual sealing.

Following the painting and sealing of the painted areas of the ice, 12 to 14 hours’ worth of Zamboni water-laying and spreading take place until the ice reaches a thickness of approximately 7/8 of an inch to 1-1/4 inches, measured using a drill bit and documented on detailed ice thickness charts.

Due to the fact that ice freezes in an elliptical fashion, away from the boards, before laying the final coat of ice, edging and dry-cutting are done to ensure that the ice surface is level in all areas. Edging is done manually by a technician by pushing an ice-smoothing machine around the edges of the surface near the boards to assure that pucks wrapped-around will not be affected by uneven ice. Dry-cutting is achieved by lowering the blades and smoothing brushes of a Zamboni to scrape and smooth the top layer of ice to a level and uniform height all around.

Many professional teams choose an ice height that caters to their overall team speed and style of play from one year to the next.

According to Sparks, “Fast teams often prefer ice around an inch to slightly less than an inch at around 19 degrees. Maintaining a thinner surface allows for a harder and faster top layer of ice, on account of the fact that the surface is closer to the cooling coils beneath.”

This notion is especially relevant for this year’s Rampage club. San Antonio head coach Greg Ireland concurred with Sparks’ estimation. “We have a fast, young team this year and a harder ice surface allows us to really use our speed to our advantage.”

Once the ice has been leveled, another 400-gallon coat of water is spread to create the top layer of ice. Overall, the laying of a sheet of ice requires approximately 17,000 gallons of purified water and 21 hours of labor, but maintaining the ice’s quality after it is prepared is a perpetual endeavor.

Following ice surface creation, the progress of regulating the interior environment of an arena begins.

According to Sparks, regardless of the size of an ice rink, one overarching scientific certainty exists and determines overall ice quality.

“If the arena’s internal air quality is properly maintained with the right mix of temperature and humidity,” he says, “the overall ice quality will be enhanced.”

The NHL/AHL guidelines for ideal ice quality maintenance recommend an interior building temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity. Thus, the ice should not be the coldest area of the building because it will attract a great deal of moisture, which in turn sticks to the ice and causes friction and bad ice that feels like sandpaper.

The methods utilized to create the perfect environment for quality ice vary depending on the climate control systems of different ice rinks. Many NHL arenas contain powerful dehumidifiers that are able to regulate air and humidity levels to create ideal ice surfaces.

However, in the absence of dehumidifiers, Sparks maintains that an arena’s climate control system must allow for airflow manipulation and regulation.

On account of the fact that covering the ice is not an option in most cases, many arenas choose to angle their air conditioning vents from the arena’s ceiling toward the seats and the spectator sides of the glass.

Finally, once the physical playing surface and climate control systems have been set in place, a near-constant ice-quality evaluation process begins. Sparks and his team monitor data provided by sensors located on the coils below the ice, as well as infrared sensors that measure ice surface temperature from the arena ceiling.

With this data on hand, Sparks will consult with Rampage head coach Greg Ireland, assistant coach Ray Edwards and various Rampage players on a weekly basis to discuss the state of the ice and determine whether any mechanical adjustments should be made.

“John and his team are always inquiring as to what they can do better to provide our club with the best ice possible,” said Ireland. “We speak with them frequently and are very appreciative of their dedication to ice quality in our building.”

In the end, a positive review regarding ice quality at the AT&T Center renders all of Sparks’ and his staff’s hard work worthwhile.

“We strive to provide the Rampage with the best playing environment possible and positive reviews from the coaches and players are meaningful,” Sparks says. “The Rampage are our customers, after all.”