Monday, September 25, 2006

Ice Meister Insider

Sports Plus had a really rough night last night for the men’s league. The moral of this story is not to bash the fellas involved, but instead of give a glimpse into the world of ice making and just how harried it can get. I am going to have to take a shot or two at the guys there, but it’s not personal. It just happened; similar things have happened to me. I’m sure they’ll learn from their experience as I did.

Making and maintaining a sheet of ice is a complex and expensive endeavor. Keeping GOOD ice is even harder, it takes all the cash and complexity, along with a certain ‘feel’ for it. It’s almost an art. It can be fragile, though, so even the best ice meisters have bad days.

Outside temperature and humidity changes always affect the ice. Even if it gets colder and drier, the environment inside the building feels the change and reacts. The ice can get soft, the area foggy, etc. The floor under the ice can shift, causing the ice to drop or creep up the boards. Condensation forming in the ceiling falls and causes lumps in the ice. It can get really ugly.

There are measures that can reduce or eliminate these problems. New, high-tech, sophisticated arenas have Low-E ceilings, massive dehumidification and climate controls, multi-point laser thermometers taking readings all over the ice and making adjustments, etc. That gets pretty darn expensive and few rinks have all the best gadgets.

I don’t think Sports Plus has any of the gadgets. They have standard ceilings, the dehumidification units are independent, not integrated with the environmental controls, and the ice chiller system is adequate – but barely adequate. It is very sensitive to any of those changes previously mentioned.

Last night, Murphy’s Law kicked in and they had it all go wrong. The ice was foggy and soft to start with. That happens and is usually just a nuisance, but last night it seemed really bad. The puck wouldn’t settle down for anybody and was very hard to control. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That was after we actually got playing.

For some reason, they decided to train a new Zamboni driver last night, when games were already running late, with the ice being soft, and to top it off they used the old Olympia machine that barely runs and the studs on the tires are all but gone. From what I was told, it was the poor guy’s first time behind the wheel –ever. It showed.

He started down the boards, with his teacher riding on back, lowers his conditioner, and promptly stalled the machine. He gets it going again, peels out, turns sideways, and stalls it again. Finally he gets it going, doesn’t stall, and is moving along quite nicely. Too nicely.

KABOOM! He crashes square into the end boards behind the goal line, right into one of the doors to the ice. It blew the door out and bent the framing. The staff struggled with that while the new driver kept going. We thought they would have to call off the game, but somehow they managed to get the door safely shut.

So the new driver keeps on driving, but he is sideways more than straight. He was all over the ice like Odell Thurman’s SUV on Kellogg Ave. This is caused by the driver’s inexperience, the lack of properly studded snow tires, and having to go too fast to keep the machine from stalling out.

This was all comical until he tore out about a 6-foot section of the goal line. The ice was obviously shallow there, so it really was not the driver’s fault – except all that sliding may have contributed to the problem.

This had the potential of canceling the game as well, if they couldn’t get the cloth line brought up without leaving dangerous ends dangling up through the ice. Somehow they managed to repair it.

Then we got to play – on the crappy, soft, foggy ice.

Note to Sports Plus: before you try to train a new Zamboni driver, first have him watch the video Zamboni provides. Then, take him out after hours. Let him drive around the ice a while without even trying to resurface. Just let him drive and turn and get the feel for it.

Then, lower the conditioner but don’t turn on the water. Raise the cutting blade so it’s barely skimming, and let him get the feel of things that way until he builds up to being able to drive the pattern.

Then, and only then, lower the blade so it is cutting the ice enough for a resurfacing and let him run the pattern until he feels comfortable. After that cutting, the ice level will need to be built back up, so he can run the pattern a couple of times with water only, still getting used to the feel of it.

Did I mention this is all done after hours!?

Finally, after several training sessions, the new driver may be ready to go out and run a basic resurfacing patter – but still it should be done after hours or in times with a long break between uses.

It was pretty ugly. I actually feel bad for the guy trying to learn. He was definitely not set up for success.

It could have been worse. We did finally get to play and the beer in the bar after the came was nice and cold.

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