A few weeks ago, our Friday night pick-up hockey buddies had an opportunity to play at Scotiabank Place, home of the Ottawa Senators.
This is the stuff of childhood dreams. In front of 18,500 screaming fans. Flashing lights, loud music blaring.
Well, not exactly.
We didn’t grow up watching the Senators. Scotiabank Place has a feeling of newness, without the aurora of legacy and history. We had about ten spectators in the stands (hey, at least they didn’t have to pay for the 100 level seats). No music, no spotlights.
We hop on to the ice. Pucks are dropped and scattered. And stick. No, I don’t mean stick as in the wooden thing in my hands. I mean stick as in the puck, sticking to the ice. That’s what happens when you have too much water on the ice and rather than gliding, the puck sticks (maybe this is why the Sens have had so much trouble making the first pass this season).
So what is going on here? Isn’t this the same ice the NHL players skate on? Isn’t this professional quality ice? The same ice our franchise lets our multi-million dollar players skate on? Shouldn’t this be better than our recreational city ice?
Not so simple.
The NHL mandates building conditions across all thirty franchises, including temperature and humidity. This means that arenas use refrigeration units and chillers to keep the building below the required 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). The ice itself is about 1 1/2 inches thick, and is laid on top of a slab of concrete. The ideal temperature for the ice surface is between 20 and 22 degrees Fahrenheit (about minus 5 degrees Celsius). How do I know this stuff? Hey, Baxter did some hard-core investigative journalism to write this blog (i.e. Google).
How do you keep this standard when you have a building full of screaming fans, professional hockey players and the glare of television lights? I have no clue. I’m not sure the NHL does either. The company that installed the ice equipment and slabs for 80% of the league’s rinks is Cimco Refrigeration, based in Toronto. They also did the slabs at the nearby Bell Sensplex (which actually has pretty good ice but uses different chilling technology than the one at Scotiabank Place).
This has been an ongoing problem for the NHL. Back in 1999, the league implemented new rules that called for entertainment activity (TimBits hockey, goofy obstacle skating courses, etc) to end no later than 12 minutes before the start of the next period. Between the start of the second and third periods, only the starting lines can participate in the warmup skate. Not sure if this changes made much of a difference. Today’s facilities are used by so many different events (basketball, concerts, etc.) that converting from ice to something else takes a LOT of effort.
Where does this surface water come from? Well, here’s where it gets a little complicated. Part of it has to do with the temperature of the ice. That element is controlled by long pipes of coolant which run underneath the ice surface, and is kept at a constant temperature. The other part is the humidity in the building. When the air is warm, the ice surface acts as a giant condenser for moisture. Eventually, the coolant catches up with the excess water and freezes it. In Edmonton, you could literally throw open the doors of their arena to chill the building. In California, doing that means the ice simply deteriorates.
There you have it. That is the end of Hockey Ice 101. Luckily, no one got hurt that night by the poor ice conditions, but now I have an excuse I can pull out of my hat after I have another bad game.