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The ice meister cometh

Practice makes perfect when it comes to Olympic ice

Stephane Lambiel's sudden retirement four months ago stunned the figure skating world.
Stephane Lambiel's sudden retirement four months ago stunned the figure skating world. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(11/27/2008) - Stéphane Lambiel complained of "crashy ice" at the world championships in Sweden last March. "Gluey ice" was the issue at Trophée Eric Bompard earlier this month.

Clearly, ice is not just ice and when it comes to elite athletes being able to deliver a peak performance. There is much more to making perfect ice than freezing water.

"It's like baking the ultimate cake. It's not just the ingredients, it's how the oven works and all the rest of the things around it," explained 2010 Olympic Games ice meister Kameron Kiland, the man hired to oversee icemaking for the figure skating and short track speed skating events.

"The building needs to be at a certain temperature, the air flow needs to be at a certain [rate of exchange]. Dehumidification is a big thing. The brine [water] temperature going out and the surface needs to be cold enough to keep the bond, but still have the surface temperature warm enough to hold the skaters' [edges]," he added.

It is not the prospect of crashy or gluey ice that gives Kiland nightmares. High humidity that causes fog and frost could be the real enemy in Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum.

"Frost slows things down immensely and if there is an ice chunk out there it stays still and they have to skate right over top of it," Kiland said.

Two-years of weather reports leading up to the Games will help ice makers track conditions they can expect at Games time -- rain, snow, outdoor air temperature and so on -- so they can plan the appropriate in-venue environmental controls.

Kiland said "trial-and-error research, experience and knowledge" is how ice-making expertise is developed.

Kiland, himself, has 15 years of ice-making experience. He has made curling ice, hockey ice, speed skating and figure skating ice over the years, working in Saskatchewan and at the Olympic Oval in Calgary, and instructed other facility managers in the tricks of the trade.

Interestingly, the temperature of the water flooded onto the surface plays a huge role in ice quality.

"One-hundred-and-eight degree Fahrenheit water makes crappy ice. Some facilities try to save money by turning their water heating systems down," Kiland advised, adding that 150 gallons are required to fill the tank on an ice-making machine.

"You need a minimum 130-degree water temperature and 145 to 150 degrees is perfect for flooding with machines because it gets most of the oxygen out of the water. You can see your logos better, it bonds to the surface better, it's safer and purer ice."

Kiland uses the word "safe" to describe the ice he strives to provide for athletes in both sports. That means the ice should be softer for figure skaters to ensure they "stand up" when they land a jump.

"If it gets too cold, they just blow [the ice] out and their picks won't hold and they're down," he said, noting speed skaters perform best on a somewhat colder ice surface.

"We want speed skaters to feel they've raced a very competitive event, but still stand up. We could make it super fast, but it's very hard to stand up, the same as figure skating."

Filters were installed in the Olympic venue to eliminate the organics common in Vancouver water. Without filters, silt made the ice the color of ice tea. It also dulls blades and slows the skaters' flow across the ice.

For the 2010 Games, the ice will be painted the ISU-stipulated color -- Pantone 428 grey. There will be an Olympic graphic, yet to be unveiled, at center ice.

"We use good quality ice paint and we haven't had issues with it migrating through. Paint with glycerine eventually floats to the top," Kiland said, surmising that could have been the problem at the Grand Prix in Paris.

Kiland, who studied the venues at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, is just one of several ice meisters whose job it is to keep athletes skating, sliding and gliding smoothly though the 2010 Games. Hockey, long-track speed skating, curling, and the sliding sports -- bobsleigh, skeleton and luge -- each have their own expert ice maker.

The group has agreed, however, that none of them will be embedding a good luck charm for Canadian athletes in their ice surfaces as first happened in Salt Lake City in 2002 when the hockey ice meister froze a one-dollar "Loonie" coin into arena ice.

In Turin, Kiland spent a couple of days shadowing Lake Placid's ice meister Denny Allen, who was in charge of the Palavela ice where short track races and figure skating were held.

One of the main things Kiland had to learn was how to switch out the venue to accommodate speed skating practice in the morning and figure skating events in the evening or vice versa.

Figure skating requires ice that is 1.5 to 2 inches thick. With a surface temperature of 27 or 28 degrees F, it is softer than speed-skating ice.

During the changeover between the two sports, Kiland said the ice has to be cooled down for short track between 3.5 and 4 degrees and its thickness shaved down somewhat. The biggest challenge in switching between the two, Kiland advised, is dealing with the holes caused by figure skaters' toe-picks and ruts caused by speed skaters striding around the track.

The ice surface will be surrounded by a thick safety pad barrier to protect the speed skaters, but for figure skating one-quarter of it will be removed to allow the judges to sit adjacent to the rink and coaches to give their skaters a last-minute pep talk before they take their starting position. Kiland said this change was made based on figure skating's concerns expressed about the obtrusiveness of the padded barrier at the Turin Games.

Kiland's one chance to test drive the fully-outfitted Olympic facility and its figure skating ice will come in February at the 2009 ISU Four Continents Championship.