“A lot of the jobs you do around the arena, no one sees. This one everyone sees all year long, so this one, when it’s done, you can take pride in it.” – Al Ambrosio. Photo: John Boivin

At summer’s peak, Castlegar arena staff turn to ice-making

Creating ice surface as much art as science

It’s 7:30 in the morning, but the staff at the Castlegar arena have already been at work for several hours.

Outside, the sun is just creeping over the mountains, with the promise of another baking 35C day. Distant fires have put a sultry haze in the sky, and a whiff of forest-fire smoke is in the air.

It’s high summer, and Murray Bennett and Al Ambrosio are busy making ice.

“It’s definitely a bit of a disconnect, but it has to be done,” says Bennett, the foreman at the arena. “We’ve got hockey school starting next week.”

The job actually started about four days earlier, when the outside temperature broke 40C. That’s when the arena’s new quarter-million-dollar chiller was switched on for the first time.

“It takes us a few days to bring the slab temperature down,” says Ambrosio, the arena’s chief engineer and the prime ice-maker. “It’s a huge mass to drop.”

The arena cooling system pumps a cold brine, a calcium chloride mix, through pipes under the slab at 880 US gallons (3,000 litres) a minute. That brine cools the cement, then flows back to the chiller. There the warmed-up brine releases its heat, and the re-cooled liquid starts the cycle over again.

It’s not much different from the way your kitchen fridge works, just on a much larger scale. The 200-horsepower chiller (your kitchen fridge works on about one-third of a horsepower) can transfer 1.32 million BTUs of heat an hour. Even at that prodigious rate, it takes several days to drop the slab temperature from 23C to -5C.

The whole process is carefully monitored.

“We have three sensors, in the ice, in the concrete floor, and on the chillers,” says Ambrosio. “When we reach our target temperature we start doing some small sprays.”

Ambrosio and Bennett slowly flood the slab with layer upon layer of water, building up ice thickness.

“We start spraying the floor very lightly, pebble the surface super-lightly,” says Bennett. “We call it sealing, or bonding it to the slab.

“If you just spray water on it, it can freeze without bonding,” says Ambrosio. “So we start very lightly and each coat gets heavier. “We use a mister, then a heavier garden sprayer, then an open one-inch (2.5 cm) garden hose.

“We’re doing faster, thinner layers this year, which is good because then you get a better bond in ice. The thinner the layers, the faster it freezes, so the stronger the ice is going to be.”

Over four 18-hour days, up to 40 layers of ice have been laid down as part of the first stage of the process. Ice-making is as much art as science, and every ice-maker has their own style and preferences.

“Even the speed we are walking changes. The first walk takes five minutes, the second one takes eight minutes, the third one takes 15,” Ambrosio says. “Now we are up to 30 minutes with a garden sprayer.”

It’s a delicate time in the life of the ice. A power failure or glitch in the new chilling system could force the crew to start over. Too much water or too much air, the wrong temperature or humidity in the building, can all affect the ice quality. The freezing rate changes over the time of day. This sheet is expected to stay in place until March, so it’s important to get it right the first time.

With the first stage complete, a zamboni is used to scrape and smooth the rough surface down. Then the painting begins.

Because the ice isn’t white yet. Those 40 layers are almost invisible on the concrete floor, a mass of grey frozen water.

A bizarre contraption — essentially a tank on wheels attached to a spray boom — is rolled around the ice surface, spraying five or six layers of white, water-based paint on the ice, building up a pure-white surface. Now the crew has to be a little more careful.

“We do a seal coat of ice over top of the whitener, and we try to keep the dirt off it, so we’re not wrecking it,” says Bennett. “We try to keep it as clean as we can — we have a place to wipe our shoes off before walking on the ice.

“It’s a point of pride — we don’t want dirty-looking ice all year.”

With the blank canvas in place, the art of line painting begins.

“Murray’s our painter. He’s the Jedi of ice painting,” says Ambrosio. “He’s definitely the guy who lives for the ice painting part. I’m more of the technical guy, the flooding guy.”

The more complicated designs, the logos and corporate signage, are on fabric. They’re applied to the ice surface like giant peel-off stickers, then frozen in place with layers of ice.

Another 30 or so floods after the painting and signage is applied. the job is all but done. On top of the now-frozen slab will be nearly two inches of ice, ready for the first students of the hockey school to cut the ice next Monday.

After nearly 30 years, Ambrosio says it’s still a thrill to see the work completed.

“I’ve been here for every sheet since I started 28 years ago, and we do the Pioneer Arena too, so double that number. That’s quite a few sheets.

“I don’t know if you get better, but it becomes easier, for sure.”

“It feels good when it’s done, you go up to the top bleachers, take a few pictures,” he says. “A lot of the jobs you do around the arena, no one sees. This one everyone sees all year long, so when it’s done, you can take pride in it.

“I think every ice maker does.”

So is there a rivalry between the local arenas for who makes the best ice?

“Not really,” says Ambrosio, who laughs mischeviously. “There’s really no doubt who’s the best.”

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Arena foreman Murray Bennett learned his ice-painting skills doing the lines on curling sheets. Photo: John Boivin

It takes a steady hand like Murray Bennett’s to lay the lines down to turn the ice surface into a hockey rink. Photo: Al Ambrosio

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