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The Science of Ice

by Joe Leary / Vancouver Canucks
On the surface, it may appear to be nothing more than just frozen water, but for those who are called upon to provide and protect the sheet of ice at the National Hockey League level, the process is nothing short of an exact science.

The precision that goes into not only providing a suitable climate but maintaining idyllic conditions at General Motors Place requires the constant attention of a number of key personnel around the clock. In fact, we, in Vancouver, can now proudly lay claim to being the envy of many competing hockey clubs and currently rank among the top five NHL teams in the ever-improving quality of our ice surface. It wasn’t always the case. As Vice President and General Manager of Arena Operations for General Motors Place, Harvey Jones was at the helm of what is now regarded as something of a major breakthrough in achieving the ultimate ice surface.

“About five years ago, we were looking at the quality of our ice and where we were in comparison to the rest of the League,” says Jones. “The NHL monitors the ice and one player from each team and one referee fills out a report at the end of every game. The League then tabulates and ranks it, and we were down typically, at the time, in the bottom third of teams.”

“Our engineering guys started looking at it, doing some investigation. Our former Director of Engineering took the lead in it and, through a lot of research, concluded that new buildings had been going in the wrong direction. When they built new buildings, they were putting in water treatment plants and purifying the water, and using pure water to make ice, when in fact some of the buildings that were at the high end of the ice ranking scale were buildings that had impure water and they had certain types of salts in the water.”


“We started experimenting with adding back, and eventually arrived at a certain quantity and type of salt that we add back in. We started doing that, using this treated water which we named ‘Rite Ice,’ and right from the first time the players skated on the ice, it was noticeable and a significant improvement to them.”

With this new innovation in ice, GM Place staff was able to run the ice sheet temperature a little bit colder, which in turn hardened the surface while minimizing the amount of chips in the ice, a problem often associated with a colder surface.

The results were soon apparent. Shortly following this innovation, Vancouver’s ice ranking dramatically ascended from near the bottom of the League initially, to among the NHL’s best. Today, several teams even enlist the aid of GM Place personnel to similarly provide their ice surfaces with this formulaic treatment.

In a continued effort to ensure GM Place’s playing area was of premium quality other areas of the rink were evaluated. Heeding comments from players and the coaching staff regarding the manner in which the puck would often bounce off the in boards, the engineering staff, through consultation, was also able to effect change by adjusting the dasher boards, thus giving the ice sheet a truer edge at the bottom.

When discussing the subject of creating and maintaining a professional quality ice surface, there are any number of factors upon which one must consider. Uppermost in determining a suitable indoor hockey climate is the fact that the temperature outside can and does affect the temperature inside. Despite Canada’s game usually being played in a winterish environment, the external conditions can have an adverse effect on the conditions on ice.

“For conditions that allow good ice, humidity is the big factor,” adds Jones. “We can cool the building down, but our challenge is keeping the air dry enough. If there’s a lot of humidity in the air, as soon as the players skate, you get the shavings of ice. They absorb the water out of the air and ice shavings become very heavy. The real challenge here is keeping it dry. We don’t have dehumidification in this building like a lot of the newer buildings have now so it’s a little easier for them. By the time the puck drops, we want the surface temperature to be about 21 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Maintaining a comfortable climate for the fans, while providing ideal conditions for the players by factoring in the external conditions is but a microcosm of the daily challenges facing the engineering staff, led by Manager, Plant Operations Mark Wohl, at GM Place. In addition to being a world class hockey facility approximately fifty times per year, GM Place also annually plays host to some forty rock concerts and family events, in addition to roughly thirty miscellaneous private rentals including various film shoots and corporate events. Needless to say, the extraneous transformations from ice rink to concert venue can take its toll, both on the ice surface and on the roster of those who are called upon to maintain it.


Just as creating an ideal ice surface has become an exact science, the transformation of the building from one configuration to another is also a finely tuned procedure.

“The process of conversion requires a 45 person team to transform the building from concert venue to ice rink and vice versa and we do it in about eight hours,” says Al Hutchings, Director of Engineering. “A concert will usually end around 11:00pm, at which point they start tearing down their gear, so it’s usually about two in the morning before the boxes are loaded onto the trucks and the concert moves out. From 2:00am on, we’re replacing the glass — because all the glass has to come out for a concert — and sections of the boards have to come out so we can remove the protective cover from the ice surface.”

That’s if all goes well. Sometimes, there can be challenges to meet the time constraints.

“Let’s say it’s a big show and the rigging is more complicated and doesn’t come down as easily,” Hutchings adds. “That will cause a further delay, or perhaps the ice was damaged as coffee and pop can often seep through the cover protecting the ice surface. If it ends up being heavily stained, then the process becomes even more time consuming.”

With the building’s constant maintenance providing ideal conditions to the tens of thousands of yearly patrons, and the reconfiguration process meeting the standards of the National Hockey League now down to a science, the engineering staff can now focus their attention to playing host to the Olympic world in 2010, and the inherent set of challenges that will bestow.

“It’s going to be huge,” says Hutchings. “Just do the math. With three games a day and losing approximately a quarter of an inch to a half inch of ice per game, you’re in trouble in a hurry. Our sheet of ice is going to have to be heavier than normal and thicker than normal and we’re going to have to spend a ton of time after each day rebuilding that sheet through the night, so we’ll be here 24 hours a day.”

“Plus, the loading and unloading of the building will have a huge effect on conditions as well. There are going to be three crowds a day coming in and out, and that means if it’s humid outside, it’s really going to affect the temperature both in the building and at the ice level. It’s going to be a real challenge to get the ice to the standard we want it to be at.”

While a daunting task, one can only imagine that these ice scientists are already on the case.

45 - Canucks home games in 07-08

48 - Non-Canucks events from July 2007-June 2008

18 - Full-time engineering staff

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