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IN DEPTH: Rexall Place Ice Makers

by Meg Tilley / Edmonton Oilers

An outdoor skating rink — a Canadian winter doesn’t feel quite complete without one.

As long as you have snow, freezing temperatures, access to a hose and water supply and a determined and disciplined will to prep and maintain it, you’re set.

But when it comes to creating an indoor rink, more specifically a National Hockey League (NHL) rink, in a space where warmth tends to outweigh the cold, where do you start?

“First, our refrigeration mechanics will come in and they’ll fire up the plant and start cooling the floor,” said George Waselenchuk, Operations Manager of Rexall Place.

“They cool the floor over a period of about six hours until the (rink’s) concrete slab gets to the temperature where it will start to remove enough heat from the water to turn it into ice.”

Waselenchuk, 45, who has managed the operations of the facility for eight years now, has been in the business of building rinks for 18 years.

“I started in 1985 as a parking attendant and then moved inside to start working with the union guys in 1989, but there used to be other buildings,” he said.

“I spent a few years working in the [Northlands] Sportex building, on the ice in there, and a few years in the AgriCom and the Expo Centre working on the ice in there…. We basically worked in all the buildings back then.”

Waselenchuk and the ice crew were responsible for making and maintaining the ice for two hockey rinks and 12 sheets of curling ice.  

“Basically, when we were making ice we would go from one building to the next and put all the sheets in. It made for some busy, long days but it was fun.”

MADE FROM SCRATCH

A process that can take anywhere from 48-72 hours, building a rink is no easy feat.

“We’ve done it in 24 hours before but it’s not good quality ice because you end up rushing it,” said Chris Lewis, Lead Hand Building Attendant at Rexall Place.

“You want to lay small, thin layers of ice down so it doesn’t break apart while the players are skating on it.”

Lewis, 47, has been lead hand for over 10 years, but has been working at Northlands for over 30 years.

“It started as a part-time after school job and then I worked my way up the ladder,” he said.

With roles shared between a team of 10-12 individuals, and a couple of plastic chairs, — used to set the hose on to prevent it from melting into the ice — creating the ice at Rexall Place is an around-the-clock job and completed in stages before it is thick enough to skate on.

“The chairs are like extra hands,” said Lewis.

Before the first few thin layers of water are expelled onto the concrete, the ice crew must wait until the slab reaches an approximate temperature of -11 C.

“It depends on how much humidity is in the building. Humidity plays a large factor in the temperature settings of the floor and the ice plant,” explained Waselenchuk.

“But the ice plant runs constantly through the concrete. It’s like your fridge. If you open your fridge door and you have it open for a few minutes, the compressor will kick on in the back and start to send cooling through the fridge because it’s trying to maintain temperature, it’s exactly like that for the ice plant.”

Once the concrete is cool they spray, in a mist-like fashion, four thin layers of water down and then begin the first stages of painting the ice by first laying four coats of white paint on the ice to make it white enough for television.

PAINT BY NUMBERS

Made of calcium carbonate, the paint used to create the familiar faceoff circles, goalie creases and the Oilers logo is similar to a paint powder that children use for finger painting.

“The reason for that many coats [of paint] is — just like when you’re painting a wall with a paintbrush — to have an even coat so that there are no imperfections when the games are shown on TV,” said Alexander Budin, Building Attendant One at Rexall Place.

“Then we seal it with four coats of clear water and then the process of actually painting the markings begin.”

Budin, 27, has been working on the installation and maintenance of the ice since 2012.

A layer of white paint is misted onto the ice. Photo Getty Images.

Once a second process of four clear coats of water has set on the white paint, knitting yarn is used to outline the blue lines, red lines, goal lines and goalie zones to ensure each section is straight.

“It stays in until the ice is removed,” said Waselenchuk.

“Once that’s done you paint the circles and the faceoff dots. Those are all hand painted, but then the advertising logos are all fabric inlays, [except for] the Oilers logo.

“Just this year the Oilers purchased a rubber stencil and we’ve [gone back to] hand-painting the logo this year, which when I was doing it originally, when I was actually on the ice crew, we hand-painted all the advertising logos, then went to fabric and now it’s actually heading back the opposite direction.”

The in-ice graphic inlays, which take roughly 15 minutes to place in the ice, are made of a reusable fabric, similar to a mesh material, and have water transfer properties for the purposes of installation.

“It’s almost like wallpaper, you get it wet and roll it down, it’s almost the same process,” said Lewis.

“You put it down with rollers and squeegees and make sure there’s no air pockets. That’s the challenge with inlays, sometimes there’s an odd air pocket and makes it look like we missed a spot, so we take some hot water, get it into the air pocket and away we go.”

Though the inlays prove to be a time-saver, Waselenchuk said that many teams have now transitioned back to hand-painting their team logo into the ice.

“The big fabric logos, a lot of teams have reverted back to painting them because the fabric was so big you’d get wrinkles in it,” he said.

“As time goes on the fabric stretches and so the logo doesn’t look as good…. More than half the rinks paint their logos again now. It’s just much easier.”

It takes the crew two hours to hand paint the Oilers logo. Once all areas of the rink are complete, another few clear coats of thin water are sprayed over top to complete the build and produce an NHL-standard rink thickness of an inch and a quarter.

MAGICAL ICE MACHINE

The Zamboni — it’s a large and stocky piece of machinery that has held a captivated audience since its development in 1949.

As it makes its rounds on the surface of the ice before, during and after a hockey game, it leaves a smooth glossy trail in its wake.

It appears an effortless process, but what you don’t see is the complex circuitry that is involved.     

Once the ice is installed, the crew focuses on the upkeep of the rink by way of resurfacing the ice with a Zamboni.

“Once we get to the ice surface that’s thick enough to have the machine on it, we fill up the machine with natural gas, that’s the fuel source we use for operating them, then we fill up the ice-making water tank and the wash water tank. The wash water and blade softens the ice before we cut it,” said Budin.

The purpose of the Zamboni is to take off a certain amount of snow that’s been produced after the ice has been skated on.

“So the idea behind the Zamboni is that you’re making the same amount of ice that you’ve taken off so you’re never losing ice,” explained Waselenchuk.

On the bottom of the Zamboni there is a seven-foot long, extremely sharp blade that is used to shave off the loose snow.

As the Zamboni makes its rounds, inside the front of the machine, a bucket fills three-quarters completely with snow.

Closeup of Zamboni resurfacing ice. Photo by Getty Images.

“When we go out there and the machine goes on the ice, the first thing we do is lower the conditioner down on the ice and we turn on the horizontal and vertical loggers, they’re kind of like conveyor belts that remove the snow that accumulates in the conditioner, and they shoot it into the bucket and after that we set our blades,” said Budin.

Two water nozzles below the conditioner wash out the skate grooves made in the ice while a vacuum pump sucks up the water that cleans the dirt that remains on the ice.

“Then there’s actually ice making water, which is water you see that comes out the back of the machine that coats the ice,” said Waselenchuk.

Most recreational rinks see one Zamboni operating on the rink in-between hockey games and periods, but according to Waselenchuk, there is an NHL requirement that two Zamboni’s must resurface the ice between periods.  

“The athletes are twice as strong and fit and they’re bigger than they ever used to be, so you actually lose some ice during the hockey game and the ice is thinner at the end of the game than it was at the start of the game,” he said.

The machines, which hold 160 gallons of water each, expel only 120 gallons onto the ice at a temperature of 60 C.

“The Zamboni’s take off twice as much as a single machine… and they put down less than half the amount of water, because if you put down too much water then the ice stays wet for the start of the period.”

It’s a science that’s all about making the surface more playable.

“Once the second machine has come off, hopefully if everything was set right, you can basically see the first couple of laps on the rink starting to freeze,” said Lewis.

“But once the last machine comes off it should be frozen within the 10-minute mark, 15 max.”

VENUE VARIABLES

Though Rexall Place is home to the Oilers and the Western Hockey League’s Edmonton Oil Kings, the ice isn’t always present during the season.

When it comes to hosting different events throughout the year, sometimes the ice is removed altogether.

“We only do it for dirt events, we don’t do it for concerts,” said Waselenchuk.

For concerts the rink is covered with an insulated mat material.

“We bring in flooring, called ice decking, to fit inside the hockey boards itself. And then we remove the boards, glass and nets at both ends,” said Lewis.

“It’s a unique process when you go from a hockey game to a concert.”

A labour-intensive process, the ice is only removed three to four times a year, depending on the events that come to the arena — the most recent being for the Canadian Finals Rodeo in November. During conversions, a labour company is called in to provide extra staff.

“We simply reverse the process. I turn the ice plant up to warm up the brine supply, then, when our refrigeration mechanic comes in at midnight, they take over the plant and manually reverse the system,” said Waselenchuk.

“So they warm up the brine supply to the point where they can heat the concrete slab underneath the ice, not substantially, but enough to melt the bond between the ice and the concrete and then the sheet is actually resting on a thin layer of water.”

To help break up the ice, a Bobcat skid-steer is brought in. It’s used to push the broken pieces into the two pits that are positioned at each end of the rink, and then the floor is squeegeed and washed.

“These guys have an amazing amount of experience, the stuff they’ve learned and done over the years, most people would marvel at,” said Waselenchuk.

After an event is complete, the crew turns around to install the ice once more.

The upkeep of a rink is a consistent cycle that provides players with a place to play and the public a place to skate. The tools used to build the rink may vary per arena, but the process to create it has remained unchanged.

When all is said and done, it’s a space that brings joy to many.

By Meg Tilley/edmontonoilers.com

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