The art of ice rink maintenance

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January 17, 2011
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
// In the brief skating season, every day counts //

Even in a good, cold Minnesota winter ­— the kind we’ve taken to calling “old-fashioned” — outdoor ice-skating season lasts just two months in Minneapolis, from a few days before schools’ winter break to President’s Day.

By comparison, the city’s swimming beaches are generally open for three months during the summer — something to think about during these darkest depths of winter.

To make those two months possible requires the daily efforts of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board workers, including guys like James Field, who learned the art of ice maintenance over six or seven seasons of rising hours before dawn to tend the city’s rinks.

Field developed a keen eye for the ice and learned to deal with the vicissitudes of winter weather. Temperature, humidity, sunlight, wind — they all affect the ice, he said.

“Everything plays in,” Field said. “That’s why there’s a bit of an art to it.”

The sun can be the enemy, or a friend. Cold weather is a prerequisite, but new ice laid in extreme cold might not fuse to the layer below. It will shatter like a pane of glass under a skate’s blade.

“On those kind of days, not too many people are asking to skate,” he said. “On those days we generally do something else, other than make ice.”

Early in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Field stood on the scuffed ice sheet in Linden Hills Park, bundled against the predawn cold in a hat and neck warmer, leather choppers, a thick jacket and winter boots. Nearby, Tom Wallen, the rink caretaker, worked a stream of water from a long, black hose back and forth over the hockey rink.

“You can see a lot of deep grooves here from skates,” Field said, running his boot across the ice. “It’ll take a pretty significant coat of water, but at this temperature it will freeze no problem.”


On the ice


A couple of days later and a couple of miles away, John Cogelow of Whittier glided across the hockey rink at Bryant Square Park, shovel in hand, scooping up skate shavings from that afternoon’s pick-up hockey game and dumping them over the boards. It was 6 p.m., the lights were on and another game was set to start in half an hour.

Cogelow, who sported a knit cap and graying beard, said he’d joined in the pick-up games almost every night for the better part of 20 years. That afternoon’s game was “amateur hour,” he said, but the previous night “it was real fast,” joined by former high school and even college hockey players.

Cogelow judged the ice to be “pretty good,” but complained Minneapolis seemed to lag St. Paul in getting rinks open every year. The 8 p.m. closing time was too early, he added.

“I want more,” he said.

Also shoveling was Dave Salzer, who said he grew up a “rink rat” in Brooklyn Park but wouldn’t play anymore if it wasn’t for the free outdoor ice in Minneapolis. Who wants to pay $80 an hour to rent ice time? Salzer asked.

Salzer was from Otsego, but his girlfriend lived in CARAG and it was his third time skating at Bryant Square Park in a week. Asked if they had free outdoor rinks in Otsego, he shrugged and replied: “If they do, I don’t know where they are.”

Ramsey Louder was certain they don’t exist in New York City, where he lived until moving to the Lyndale neighborhood in September.

“I’ve never been anywhere they have a public rink,” Louder said. “This is free; it’s great they have this.”


Bit-by-bit


Park Board crews begin preparing the ice around Thanksgiving most years. They add water slowly, careful not to take the frost out of the frozen ball fields.

“You really have to build it up inch-by-inch, bit-by-bit,” Field said.

That’s how Field learned to read the ice, “by doing it and watching really, really closely,” he said.

Along the way, he figured out a few other things about caring for the ice, like why almost all city hockey rinks are oriented north-to-south: so that the southern sun, reflecting off the boards, melts only the short end behind the northern goal and not an entire side of the rink.

Some parks crewmembers tell of a Golden Boot, once awarded annually to whoever laid the first or best ice of the season. But the man behind the award retired a few years ago, and it’s no longer given out, Wallen said.

Field maintained there was no need for an award. After several months of caring for one particular sheet of ice, the Park Board worker assigned to it feels a sense of pride.

Said Field: “You just definitely take ownership of it and, you know, you just want to be good at doing your job.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com.


More info

Rink updates For updates on the condition of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board outdoor ice rinks, call the rink hotline at 313-7708 or go to minneapolisparks.org.

A variety of weather factors — including temperature, humidity, wind and sunlight — affect how a new layer of ice will freeze.