This is our canvas. Our easel. This is how we paint, on fresh
sheets of ice.
--Jeremy Roenick, Philadelphia Flyers center
Whether for a collection of impressionists such as the Colorado
Avalanche or a paint-by-numbers outfit like the New Jersey
Devils, a clean sheet of ice is one of the loveliest sights in
sports. Stark white with geometric splashes of red and blue, it
glistens with the beauty of possibility--an invitation for each
player to produce a masterpiece.
"Ice is everything," Jeremy Roenick says. "For a player who
relies on skating, a fresh, hard sheet of ice probably
increases his speed by two steps. Ice is the difference between
scoring and not scoring. On a fresh sheet the puck lies nice
and flat, and the shooter will get all of it and put it where
he wants. If the ice is bad, the puck flips on edge before the
pass reaches your stick, taking away a scoring chance. When the
ice is good you see better passing, better puckhandling, better
games--hockey's beautiful. When the ice is chippy or snowy, and
the puck's bouncing and the passes aren't crisp, hockey's real
No other playing surface is so integral to its sport, so complex
to maintain and so misunderstood. NHL players aren't rocket
scientists. Or physicists. They are blissfully ignorant of
covalent bonds, crystal structure, the symmetry of solid water
molecules and the Britney Spears effect (more on that later). All
they know is that good ice (hard, dense and slick even at the end
of a 20-minute period) is found mostly in places like cold, dry
Edmonton, and bad ice (soft, slushy and sticky) is found often,
but not exclusively, in warm, humid cities such as Miami. They
know that a shoot-in by Ottawa Senators forward Todd White in
Atlanta on Nov. 25 hopped crazily past Thrashers goalie Pasi
Nurminen for the tying goal in a game that turned around the
Senators' season. And that the next night, in Florida, the puck
rolled strangely and hit the post on a breakaway by Panthers
forward Olli Jokinen in overtime after he had deked New York
Rangers goalie Mike Dunham out of position.
Given the generally sorry state of the most basic element in ice
hockey--ice--necessity is the mother of invective. As Rangers
wing Alexei Kovalev says, "The worst ice? There's probably 30
The ice is no longer a backdrop to the game but an issue in the
forefront. NHL management has tacitly acknowledged the problem in
recent years and has aggressively sought answers. Coaches fiddle
with their systems to account for ice conditions. Players, fed up
with the inconsistency of the ice, no longer mask their
disappointment. But before allowing one more player to simply
carve up the ice, we should get to the bottom of it. Or one level
beneath the concrete floors in all 30 NHL rinks are
computer-operated refrigeration systems. A network of inch-thick
steel tubing underlies the standard 200-by-85-foot surface. The
tubing carries a saltwater mixture that circulates at a
temperature of 10° to 16°. Each year in late August, arena crews
begin the 32-to 36-hour task of making ice on those concrete
floors, creating a playing surface they will painstakingly
maintain for the next eight to 10 months.
Making ice isn't done by turning on a garden hose. There are some
standard procedures, plus recommendations from Dan Craig, the
NHL's facilities operations manager. Ultimately, however, it's a
lot like making chili: Every building operator seasons to taste
and circumstance. For example, the ice at Vancouver's General
Motors Place is 71/48-of-an-inch to one-inch thick, while the
surface at Montreal's Bell Centre is two inches thick to start
the season. The ice temperature varies from 20° to 24°, depending
on building environment and water quality. And while there's
general agreement that the application of thin layers of water
creates the densest ice, there is no consensus on the ideal
mineral content of the flood water dispensed by the Zambonis.
The ice making begins with a few applications of water, from a
Zamboni or a misting machine, that freezes on top of the
concrete. After a base of less than an eighth of an inch is
created, workers paint the layer white and then seal the paint
with another thin layer of ice. The lines, circles, logos and
on-ice advertisements are painted next, and then an additional
inch or so of ice is added. The temperature of the flood water
from the Zamboni ranges from 140° to 170° because when water
cooler than 140° freezes, air gets trapped in the ice, making for
a poor playing surface.
According to the Zamboni company, 25 of 30 NHL rinks use its
resurfacer to maintain their ice; the other five use Olympias.
There is an undeniable zen of the Zamboni, which, besides the
Stanley Cup itself, is hockey's most recognizable totem. Invented
in 1949 in California by Frank J. Zamboni and first used in the
NHL at Boston Garden in 1954, the mellifluous Zamboni has
inspired band names, songs, websites, bumper stickers. (Recently
spotted: my other car is a zamboni.) Even with top speeds of nine
miles per hour and guzzling propane--only Montreal uses a
battery-powered Zamboni--it is one sweet ride. As they make
between-period passes, two Zambonis release jets of water that
clear the snow from the cuts and ruts that accrue. Meanwhile the
Zamboni's blade scrapes about 11/432 of an inch off the surface.
Finally, fresh ice-making water is sprayed through a kind of
sprinkler system called a flutter bar, then dispersed by a
terry-cloth towel at the rear of the machine.
Unfortunately, NHL arenas are not dedicated solely to hockey, and
the ice is removed at least once a year to accommodate extended
events. "If you're in Madison Square Garden after the circus,"
says St. Louis Blues center Doug Weight, a onetime Ranger, "the
place smells like crap and there are ruts in the ice like in a
front lawn." For single-day events, such as basketball games and
concerts, arena crews lay an insulated plywood or fiberboard
floor over the ice, allowing Shaq to slam and Shania to jam. In
the tug-of-war between Roenick's canvas and an arena's economic
needs--Monet versus money, as it were--hockey loses every time.
Soda and beer often seep through the floorboards, a nightmare for
ice crews. At each stop on the 2001 Britney Spears tour, two tons
of water was dumped onto the stage as part of her act, and at NHL
arenas some of it went through the flooring. Oops, she did it
Of all the variables affecting arena ice--humidity, arena
temperature and air currents, ice temperature, water composition
and the competence of the rink manager and Zamboni drivers--the
stress of an arena schedule jammed with nonhockey events is most
significant. The NBA wants the arena temperature around 70°, the
NHL wants it at 64°. Ice-show skaters prefer the ice temperature
in the mid-to high 20s, the NHL maximum is 24°. With various
demands from performers and the continuous reconfiguring of the
arena floor and surrounding seating, there often is not enough
time to groom the ice properly for hockey, to create the kind of
surface, journeyman skater Chris Taylor says, "where you take a
few strides and feel like you're going 100 miles per hour."
"The best ice anywhere is in Europe," says Colorado Avalanche
right wing Teemu Selanne, a Finn. "That's a big reason why
European guys who come over here usually skate so well. The game
is faster there, and they're better skaters, a lot because of the
ice. They don't have other events in the buildings like they do
here. It's all hockey."
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, the Grand Central Station of arenas, tied
for 18th in ice-quality ratings compiled by the NHL through the
first 300 games of this season--after each game one player per
team and one on-ice official rate the ice from 1 to 5 in six
categories (box, above)--but anecdotally the place ranks near the
bottom. Historically the Garden, which recently added the Zamboni
misting system and a new thermal floor covering that does a
better job of protecting the ice during nonhockey events, has had
bad ice, often with ruts that have caused numerous injuries.
Rangers defenseman Dale Rolfe was forced to retire in 1975 after
his skate blade got caught in a hole and he severely fractured
his ankle. No ice-related injury is more infamous than Rangers
center Ulf Nilsson's shattered ankle on Feb. 25, 1979. As New
York Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin was about to check Nilsson
in the corner, Nilsson pivoted and his skate got stuck in a rut.
Potvin splattered him, and Nilsson was out for three months.
"The Rangers' inability to win Cups, despite often having great
talent, has a lot to do with their ice," says former NHL forward
Murray Wilson, one of the league's best skaters when he played in
the 1970s. "Give that ice to world-class athletes who depend on
their ability to skate and handle the puck, and you might as well
put them on an outdoor pond."
The conditions at any arena are the same for both teams, but the
impact of bad ice is highly personal. For a finesse player like
Selanne, who depends on his soft hands and quick feet, the move
to Colorado (good ice) from San Jose (bad ice) might, one NHL
coach estimates, result in five more goals for him over a season.
For a goalie like the Vancouver Canucks' Johan Hedberg, sticky
ice prevents him from easily sliding across the crease into his
butterfly position. Numerous Florida Panthers say that the soft
ice at the Office Depot Center has contributed to a host of groin
injuries over the years.
The ice condition also plays a part in coaching strategy. As the
ice deteriorates during a period and pucks start wobbling
drunkenly, penalty killers attack the points more vigorously.
Also, passes and plays suffer as the ice worsens, and games
degenerate into the dump-it-in, chip-it-out yawnfests that
bedevil the NHL. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman became incensed
whenever one of his players took a penalty in the closing seconds
of a period because, after intermission, the opposing team would
have a power play on fresh ice.
"In Dallas we knew that in October or May we were going to play a
very conservative game after 10 minutes of every period," says
Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock, who coached the Stars from 1996 to
'02. "Our team took advantage of tough ice conditions. We'd
change our counterattacks. The players would remind themselves of
that on the ice. I remember Colorado coming in during the
playoffs and complaining about [the ice]. People were psyched
In 1997 the NHL hired Craig, the rink guru in Edmonton, to
address leaguewide ice issues, and the NHL has since made a
concerted effort to improve playing conditions. Among the
corrective measures: shortening the pregame warmup from 20
minutes to 16, allowing only starters on the ice before the
beginning of the second and third periods, shoveling snowy
buildups around the benches and nets during TV timeouts, fining
teams whose on-ice promotions extend into the last 12 minutes of
intermission, organizing leaguewide operations meetings to
exchange ideas, and encouraging rink operators to take ice-making
courses given by the Ontario Recreation Facilities Association
and its USA Hockey affiliate, STAR. Currently eight certified ice
technicians work in NHL arenas; another 24 are nearing
The biggest success story may be the ice at GM Place. Even after
the NBA Grizzlies fled to Memphis in 2000, the ice in humid
Vancouver remained problematic, prompting Jason Hartley, the
Canucks' director of engineering, to prove a long-held theory. In
2000 Hartley asked the ice technicians at NHL arenas with
so-called good ice to have their flood water chemically analyzed.
Hartley was looking for something that might toughen the almost
pure Vancouver water. With the information he collected and the
help of a microbiologist, Hartley developed a powder that
essentially adds impurities to the arena's water. Since Hartley
put his product on the market in February 2003, Rite-Ice, which
is now used in four NHL arenas, has caused a sensation--and not
only because a suspicious customs agent held up a shipment to
Anaheim's Arrowhead Pond for a few days. (In plastic bags the
stuff looks as if it were produced in Medellin, not Vancouver.)
"I can't give you the formula," says Hartley. "It would be like
giving you Colonel Sanders' secret recipe." At the start of
2001-02, GM Place ice ranked 23rd in the NHL ratings. Through 300
games this season, it was tied for third.
"I think ice still is very poor throughout the league," says
Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, a 21-year veteran.
"Players are resigned to the fact that the ice is going to be bad
in a majority of buildings--even new ones, where they spent a ton
of money on aesthetics and suites. But as far as I know they
haven't put extra effort into significantly improving ice
The portrait is not always flattering, certainly not as seductive
as a fresh sheet of ice. There will always be stories to be
carved, but as long as there is heat, humidity, hoops and hottie
singers, players shouldn't wait until late in a period to try.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO A CLEAN SHEET The pristine surface of St. Louis's Savvis Center waits to be shredded by NHL skates.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11)
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11) 8:20 p.m. Billikens game nears end
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11) 12:15 a.m. Temporary seating removed
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11) 12:40 a.m. Hardwood taken up
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11) 1:10 a.m. Ice covering exposed
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11) 5:20 a.m. Protective netting erected
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11) 5:30 a.m. Ice covering removed
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11) 6:20 a.m. Ice resurfaced
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11) 6:40 p.m. Pregame skate
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11) 6:50 p.m. Ice resurfaced again
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (11) 7:10 p.m. Face-off, Sharks versus Blues
TWO B/W PHOTOS RATING THE RINKS The NHL ranks ice quality at each venue based on reports like the one below from a visiting player
B/W PHOTO: BBS ARCHIVES CAUGHT IN A RUT Nilsson was carried off after shattering his ankle on Madison Square Garden's infamous ice in '79.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO COLD COMFORT From drilling to measure thickness and painting on logos to sweeping along the boards and repairing by hand, the ice requires constant attention.
COLOR PHOTO: DAN LOH/AP [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: G. ABEL/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA COOLER KING Conditions have improved since the NHL hired Edmonton rink guru Craig to oversee the ice leaguewide.
After a Saint Louis University basketball game on Dec. 17, the
Savvis Center floor was converted from hardwood to hockey rink, a
nine-hour job completed in plenty of time for a Blues game the