Ice Life: How arena staff prepare for puck drop

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Victoria-Royals-(1)

By Lachlan Ross, Photos by Christian J. Stewart – Island Sports News

August 31st, 2013, Victoria, BC (ISN) – Ever wonder what’s involved in preparing an arena ice surface for a season of Western Hockey League action? ISN’s Lachlan Ross went behind the scenes at Victoria’s Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre – home of the Victoria Royals – to learn more.

The frozen ice surface you see when attending a Victoria Royals game isn’t really white – it’s clear. Thinking about this may spark the thought, “I know ice is clear,” yet when remembering your favourite junior hockey rink, or NHL team’s floor, the ice is always white.

Here at Victoria’s Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, it’s thanks to icemaker, Kevin Zalba.

Preparing ice is a craft that involves a team of ten ground staff, seven different layers, multiple hours and even days of work before the Royals can skate on the rink.

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A process that began on July 29th has led to the perfect sheet of ice that you see before you at Victoria Royals games (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

This year, on the morning of July 29th, the Save-On-Foods playing surface was concrete. But at 8:00am, the hockey off-season ended, as Zalba switched on three large generators to cool the concrete and prepare the arena for its first flood of the 2013-14 season.

The generators, kept side by side in a small concrete room deep in the bowels of the rink, send a salt and water solution called “brine” through pipes laid beneath the rink floor, dropping the floor temperature to minus 9 degrees Celsius. Zalba’s team then takes to the floor, passing hoses back and forth to create a thin layer of water that quickly freezes to an eighth of an inch – or two stacked credit cards thick.

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Three large generators and a complex network of pipes deep in the basement of the arena, feed brine solution to the arena floor, ensuring the proper temperature for freezing ice is reached and maintained (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

Zalba then pours three boxes of “Jet Ice” chalk-based, white paint into a plastic barrel of water on wheels. Also on this wheeled contraption is a faded red hose stemming from the bucket with a spray nozzle attached. Once stirred, the barrel and hose are wheeled on the ice and three separate coats of paint are applied. To ensure the paint isn’t chipped or dirtied in season, once dry, this newly whitened ice is then sealed again with clear water – like laminating a card.

The blue and red lines you see now are then painted by hand, using string as the artist’s main tool. Zalba’s crew freezes string in place to outline the blue lines, then uses another string attached to the center of faceoff circles to stretch and act as an oversized math compass. This string connects to a stick and paintbrush, held by an operator who walks around to trace each perfect circle. After Zalba is content with his lines, just like the white paint, this layer is sealed with another thin layer of water, thus freezing the lines into place.

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Blue lines and other lines on the ice are painted by hand, while logos are laid down with the aid of stencils and mesh sheets to ensure accurate reproduction (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

Once Zalba’s canvas has been painted white and marked with game lines, the hardest part of the job begins – laying the logos. The Save-On-Foods team used to hand paint the logos on the ice, but due to the ever-changing and increasing number of advertisements, sponsors now send logos to the team made from mesh sheets or stencils. For instance, the logo you see at center ice is made from three sections of mesh sheeting. What makes inlaying these sheets tough, is if a logo is misplaced or incorrectly laid, the team must cut that section of ice out to correct it. This means an error in a logo can require hours of replacing damaged ice.

As was well documented at the Vancouver Olympics, placing a coin at center ice is performed by Zalba too. “I always try to think of something different,” he says. “One year we put Tooney’s in and we weren’t winning. I said ‘we’re spending too much money, so I’ll put a Penny in.'” Maybe Zalba was onto something, because the team picked up their form.

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Who knows what denomination of coin has been placed at centre ice this year? Only icemaker Kevin Zalba will know for sure (Photo: Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

When Zalba’s team is content with their lines, logos, and the coin has been placed, they began laying larger volumes of water from a valve hose. This involves the entire team on the ice passing the hose back and forth, ensuring the water is evenly spread, so that the ice freezes at a uniform thickness. Zalba’s crew continues this process until the ice is an inch-and-a-half thick, ready for the Royals to play.

But the job doesn’t stop at laying the ice. Maintaining ice involves in-game monitoring from a computer showing temperatures in different sections of the floor. “After [the game] starts, everything changes because of atmosphere and people,” says Zalba. From the brine lines under the ice, he is able to raise or drop floor temperatures mid-game to combat the crowd’s body heat and breath. In a separate room of dehumidifiers, Zalba will also adjust arena air temperatures to compensate changing humidity levels. “We need to take the moisture out of the air, because it makes the ice very slushy on top. I want it a little bit harder and smoother, or a little more snowy or flakier… I like to be around 40 [percent humidity] or under for game time,” Zalba says.

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Through a single computer and some specialty software, arena ice engineers constantly monitor temperature and humidity levels, making in-game adjustments as needed to keep the ice in perfect playing condition (Photo Christian J. Stewart / Island Sports News)

After each game, two groups of four ground staff take shifts maintaining the ice for five hours of flooding overnight. Zalba is on call at all times for maintenance in case anything breaks down, which while might sound demanding, is better than leaving problems until morning.

“It’s easy to take ice off,” says Zalba. “I can take this ice down from an inch-and-a-half to a quarter-inch in three or four hours, but to build it back up, I need over 100 floods. And each flood takes around twenty minutes.”

Like many multi-use stadiums and hockey arenas, the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre isn’t just a hockey rink. Zalba’s team often has transformed the stadium for other uses and activities including concerts, professional wrestling, curling and even basketball when the Harlem Globetrotters came to town. To convert the arena, the team must wait for Royals games or public skates to finish and at around 10:00pm, put flooring over the ice to insulate it, take out the glass, and set up the stage. Once these initial preparations have been done, the concert group staff and production company arrive to set up specific sets and lighting. With 37 Royals home games and 25 concerts this year, Zalba’s team will frequently experience the tight transformation periods most North American icemakers face.

“You have to prepare ahead of time,” says Zalba. “If you know these events are coming, instead of having an inch-and-a-quarter ice this week, you want to have an inch-and-a-half.”

It’s tricks like this that Zalba has learned in his five years at the Save-On-Foods arena, and before that, two years at the Juan De Fuca Recreation Centre, after serving in the Navy for 22 years. It was in the Navy that he took his first three-day icemaker course, followed by a few week refrigeration ticket in Victoria once he got out. The final qualification needed was an Ice Facility Operator ticket, which included 30 hours of work experience and a seven hour exam.

“I love doing the ice,” says Zalba. “It’s my thing… I’m really fussy on how it looks and our crew takes a lot of pride in it.”

Be sure to visit Island Sports News (www.islandsportsnews.net) for comprehensive news and game action photography from the Victoria Royals 2013-2014 season.

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