There is a reason Juneau is known throughout hockey circles as having the best ice in the state. It is the water, or rather how the water is applied.
“Most people think you just crack a beer and watch the water freeze,” Treadwell Ice Arena Manager Michael Brna said. “It takes a week to put down a good ice surface.”
It also takes a lot of patience and science.
Brna attended conferences in Chicago with Serving The American Rinks (STAR) and the North American Rink Conference & Expo (NARCE) in 2004-06, taking classes that made him a certified ice technician (CIT). He studied ice resurfacer operation and maintenance, basic refrigeration and ice making and painting technologies (IMPT). He worked on ice belonging to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Treadwell Facilities Maintenance Supervisor Greg Smith also attended the conferences, but for managing purposes.
“Basically they get a few hundred ice geeks and put them together in one room,” Brna said. “It is big deal in Canada. Most Zamboni drivers are in a union there.”
There are roughly 300 CITs in North America. STAR’s partnership with the Ontario Recreation Facilities Association (ORFA) and recognition by the National Hockey League (NHL) means Brna could lay out a professional teams ice surface.
“It is a rink managers superstition that you never paint the red center line the same way twice,” Brna said. “It is considered bad luck. There are a million different ways to do it.”
Brna bordered the centerline for the 2013 Treadwell ice with a solid red line and then got creative.
“I call this my Jackson Pollock paint,” Brna said, dripping red droplets from a brush onto the white surface between the lines in an abrstract expressionism. “We have had 12 different red lines since I have been here. I noticed this design when I spilled some paint. We are behind two days so I don’t have time to get all fancy.”
For the past 12 years, Brna has had a hand in each of the sheets of ice layered into Treadwell Arena since it opened.
“Last year was our 10th anniversary but this is our 12th sheet,” Brna said. “We put in a sheet in 2002 but didn’t open until 2003.”
It takes around 13,000 gallons of water to install the ice to a depth of one inch.
Strength of ice is determined by installation process. Thin layers from start to finish are ideal. Each layer bonds to the previous one creating a monolithic structure in the end. Flooding heavy during the ice-making process causes “shale” ice, which tends to break away in layers. It doesn’t cohere to the previous layer because it freezes slowly from the bottom up.
“We avoid this method of installation,” Brna said. “Not everybody has the luxury of the time needed for the way we put down the ice. They may have to take the ice up for other sporting events and then hurry to put ice down again.”
Lead recreation maintenance worker Jamison Paul and building custodian Joseph Mattingly joined Brna in the process. Paul walked backward with a customized hand sprayer and Mattingly towed the hose attached to it. Each averaged about 10 miles of walking per 20 layers of ice frozen.
The layers are applied at less than 1/64 of an inch. It takes approximately 60 spray coats and 30 miles of walking to achieve the ¾-inch depth needed before introducing the Zamboni to the ice.
The whole process begins with a preparation phase. In a schematic provided by Brna a typical insulation would take a week.
For instance, on Tuesday the floor of the rink would be mopped (four hours) with degreaser to insure a good bond. On Wednesday and Thursday the floor is mopped twice more to remove residue from the degreaser.
On Friday the ice plant is turned on. The manual controls are set to 16 degrees. Dehumidifiers are turned on which keep the humidity between 45- and 55 percent.
On Monday a bond layer is applied in two coats using a spray cart. Hot water (160 degrees) is used because it contains less oxygen.
“This insures a better bond with less air trapped,” Brna said. “Think tiny bubbles. The way our spray nozzles are set up it puts the water into a fine mist and loses all its oxygen before it drops down to the ice.”
Six layers of base are applied with the spray cart. Markers are frozen in to locate center ice, face off dots and goal crease centers. The original marks are on concrete and once the ice is painted white they are no longer visible.
The paint is water based and biodegradable. White base is a powdered product mixed with water in the spray cart that contains an agitator. A minimum of two layers is applied in a cross directional pattern to insure even coverage.
An outside pass is done last to cover tire marks from turning. The spray cart is flushed afterwards to clear out paint residue.
Three layers of clear (cold) water are applied to seal in white. Yarn (has to be cotton as any synthetic is hydrophobic) is frozen into the ice with a backpack sprayer to mark the lines. The entire surface is sealed to lock in yarn and provide a smooth surface for painting.
On Tuesday the circle painter is used for the center circle. Stencils and a Sharpie permanent marker are used on the ice to create the outlines for painting creases, hash marks and face off dots.
The remainder of the necessary markings are painted with water based paint and brushes.
“This is labor intensive and rough on the body,” Brna said. “It is cold, dry, and you can’t touch the ice with your hands, knees, or anything besides your feet or you’ll melt through the ice with your body heat and ruin the white coat. This year we had help from Parks & Rec Landscape crews so we really appreciated that.”
All paint is sealed with a minimum of three coats with a backpack sprayer. If water is applied without sealing, it melts the paint and causes it to bleed. A spray cart is then used to seal the entire surface with three more coats.
A spray boom is used next, with 250 feet of hose for “flooding” with cold water, again the spray nozzles mist out oxygen.
“This is where we start walking backwards,” Brna said. “We prepare to do it for a long time. It is a two-man operation. One works the sprayer, and another hauls hose. The hose is wrapped in nylon cord to keep it from melting into the ice.”
On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the ice is flooded, so to speak.
“We do the walk about ten miles backwards on ice and try not to fall,” Brna said. “We try not to step on the hose and fall. When people use a fire hose and freeze in a bunch of water it doesn’t freeze level and you have a lot more work to do with a machine at the end. When we put it down like this it is fairly level.”
For three days they apply the thin spray layers of water until ice depth has reached three-quarters of an inch.
“Then we can finally bring out the ice resurfacer, the Zamboni,” Brna said. “We flood the remaining quarter-inch with the Zamboni using hot water.”
The ice plant is then switched from manual to computer controlled and a set point is adjusted to achieve an ice sheet that stays between 24 and 26 degrees.
“Figure skaters prefer warmer ice (26-28 degrees) which makes it easier to use your edges and land jumps,” Brna said. “Hockey players prefer colder ice (22-24 degrees) which makes for a faster surface for skates and puck.”
Brna tries to keep a temperature at 25 degrees to keep everyone happy.
The plant sends out a brine water beneath the concrete sub-floor under the ice, in piping running the length of the rink, making a U-turn, and running back. The water returns to the plant warmer than it is sent out and is chilled again.
“Cold is only the absence of heat,” Brna said. “People think we cool something but what is actually happening is we are taking the heat away. That brine goes out and absorbs the heat and comes back and dumps out that couple of degrees at the plant. It is a continuous loop.”
The final step is to run the edger and level surfacer with the Zamboni blade. Two final floods and youth and adult hockey and figure skaters can take to the ice.
“You see it is just more than watching ice freeze,” Brna said. “And at the end of the season you don’t just watch it melt. We use a front end loader and break it up and haul it away.”