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Ice Age: The inside story of building an NHL rink

by Katie Foglia / Columbus Blue Jackets

The last time the Blue Jackets played on home ice at Nationwide Arena was Apr. 10, 2015 against the Buffalo Sabres -- more than four months ago.

A lot has changed. And the past is a distant memory. All eyes are to the future.

With training camp now two weeks away, a majority of the players are back in town skating together informally and gearing up for the new season.

But one important piece of the puzzle has to be set in place before camp and the season can start: the ice. Yes, the ice. Seems easy, right? If that's the assumption, it's an incorrect one.

The detailed process of the ice being put down happens in a number of carefully and creatively executed steps. Have you ever wondered how it all works?

We got the scoop from Blue Jackets ice technician Ian Huffman on one of the most exciting days of the summer.

Under the arena's concrete floor, contained within a series of pipes, is a secondary refrigerant or glycol that is very similar to the coolant found in cars. The glycol is mixed with water, a concoction that's chilled and sent out to the floor to pull the heat out of the concrete above it.

That coolant is sent through the compressor system, which is located off of the main concourse. The system is essentially a compressor room within the piping itself, and when the compressor pumps kick on, the coolant starts moving it.

It’s an automated system, so when the ice starts heating up because of the air, the two sensors that sit on the surface of the concrete will constantly read the temperature and adjust it accordingly – usually to around 21 degrees Fahrenheit.

The boards, glass, benches, penalty boxes, shielding, netting and all of the other elements must be placed and secured before the ice can go in. That all happens in the days and weeks leading up to ice installation.

“We’re basically getting the entire rink ready for the guys to skate (in three days),” Huffman said. “We’re going to have it hockey-ready, so all we have to do is add the ice, essentially. Everything will be ready to go, so when the ice is finished on Sunday, it’ll be ready to skate on Monday.”

Once the ancillary pieces are in place, the next step is to scrub the concrete floor to ensure the surface is clean of any debris before laying the ice.

“We’re going to make sure all of the tape is removed, the gum, any oil spots from a fork lift or machinery or anything like that,” Huffman said. “Make sure it’s swept really well and then they’re gonna actually come out and scrub the floor a couple of times with just water. They’ll rinse the floor really well (on Wednesday) and then it’ll be cleaned and ready to go for Thursday morning.”

In addition to Huffman, about eight to 10 people assist with the ice installation. The first step for the crew will be to put down one coat of water to seal the floor, a coat that's approximately one-64th of an inch thick. So, basically, a light mist.

Next, white paint will be sprayed on the surface. The paint, which is made specifically for ice rinks, will be used in two separate 100-gallon applications.

“It’ll freeze pretty much instantly,” Huffman said of the white paint. “It’s going down, the floor’s about 15 degrees, so it’s flash freezing. We want it to freeze quickly. If it sets for a very long time, the particles in the paint will actually start to turn and it’ll yellow the paint. You want it that brilliant white that you normally see in an ice rink.”

The paint is a water based paint that comes in a powder mix. In each coat of white paint, there are six boxes of powder mixed with 60 gallons of water.

After applying the white paint, the next step is sealing it with water about four or five times so that the white paint is sealed off. At this point, the ice is one-eighth of an inch thick.

When applying the hockey markings, lines and logos, it’s essential to measure everything to the league’s standards. In other words, you need to be good at #math.

Huffman uses yarn to string the goal lines, center red line and blue lines to ensure that they are all perfectly straight.

“We run those all the way across, pull them tight, measure them and make sure it’s 12 inches all the way across the line and then we’ll freeze those in with just a light coat of water just so they stay in place,” Huffman said. “We will do those for the lines on the trapezoids behind the nets, and then we’ll start painting.”

All on-ice markings in each zone are next, followed by painting the goal creases their familiar hue of blue. Then it's on to the logos, which are a mesh style for the first time (they were previously textiles), which are laid on the ice and essentially act as enormous stencils.

“We have to position (the logos) where we want for TV, make sure they are the right distance from the boards based on league requirements, and then we’ll spray it with water and freeze it in place," Huffman said.

“It’s a much easier application than hand-painting all of the details on it,” Huffman said. “The sponsors can obviously be a little more creative with their artwork, if they want some shading in some different areas that you can’t do with a brush and then obviously the logos themselves, they hold the color very well so they’re still bright – like paint is – so it’s not really any different than paint is.”

For details that are physically painted, Huffman uses a special paint brush made out of hog’s hair because it holds the paint well.

The next step is adding light applications of water (think of it as a mist) to seal the paint.

Once there's a one-inch thick sheet of ice, we're in business.

“Your one-inch sheet is pretty standard across the league,” he said. “The more ice you have, the longer it takes to set up, to refrigerate. The glycol that’s moving through there, what it’s doing is pulling the heat out of the ice above it, so the further it has to travel through the ice, the longer it’s going to take to cool back to (an ideal) 21 degree surface temperature.”

That's where the Zamboni comes in. Once the ice approaches the ideal thickness, Huffman rolls out the Zamboni and uses hot water to level off the sheet. There are tools to measure it exactly, Huffman said, but he's got it down to a science.

But where does all the water come from?

The water comes from a hose on the corner of the wall in the Zamboni tunnel. The water is fed from a reverse osmosis system that’s located in the OhioHealth Ice Haus, and that system supplies both rinks with water.

“It’s treated tap water,” Huffman explained. “We control the dissolved solids – calcium, sodium, you name it. You want some solids in there, just to kind of hold the ice together and give it some density, but not too much that it clouds your ice and takes away from the brightness of your logos.”

When the ice-making process gets started, the excitement is palpable. The rink is almost a reality, and don't think the Blue Jackets players haven't taken notice.

“I think it’s great," defenseman Kevin Connauton told "You can tell the whole staff out there working on the ice is passionate about it, and everyone’s excited to get in there and see it again.”

“It’s going to kind of make everyone realize how close we are to getting things started.”

On a practice day, Huffman will resurface the ice three times before practice, clean it up and make sure the edges are in shape.

On game days, he gets the ice ready for the two morning skates (home and away teams) and then begins game preparations around 4 p.m.

The 2015-16 season will be Huffman’s seventh working full-time for the Blue Jackets and his 10th overall with the team. He became familiar with the ice about 11 years ago when he started working at the local Chiller Ice Rinks.

“That’s where I picked up driving the (Zamboni), and then just working part-time on the ice crew, learning more about it, that’s when I found a passion for it and really enjoyed the job,” he said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in school, so I took a full-time job at the rink and picked this up, kind of on the side."

While working at the Chillers, the Blue Jackets' previous ice technician, Rich Phillips, let Huffman know that he was planning to leave his post.

"If I wanted to pursue it, it was right there for me, so I committed myself to learning as much as I could his last year here, and I was fortunate enough to get the job,” Huffman said.

During the season, Huffman will log between 80 and 100 hours each week. If there are people on the ice at the arena, he arrives by 6:30 a.m. and works, on average, an 18-hour day.

On practice days, those hours go down to about eight to 12 hours. They are long hours, yes, but Huffman is doing something he's truly grown to love and appreciate.

“I’m here for the team, first and foremost,” Huffman said. "I’ve certainly grown to be passionate about not only ice, but the game of hockey itself, and knowing that I can, through my job, make the game better.”

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