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Why there’s no simple solution to the NHL’s battle with bad ice

Unfavorable ice conditions this season have led to player complaints, game delays and even a postponement, but don’t expect the NHL to find an easy fix for the issues.

One week ago, Ryan Miller called the United Center ice the worst he had seen in his career, saying pucks hadn’t been able to sit flat all night. The same day, an afternoon tilt between the Bruins and Penguins had to be delayed because of a hole in Pittsburgh’s ice.

This comes in a season in which Islanders players openly complained about ice conditions at the Barclays Center, Corey Crawford pointed out better ice as a better way to fix decreased scoring and the Hurricanes and Red Wings had to reschedule a game because the rink was in rough shape due to a compressor malfunction. Asked about deteriorating ice conditions, Coyotes veteran Radim Vrbata said they've always been like they are this year and that on some surfaces around the league the ice is in such rough shape "you feel like the slowest hockey player ever."

In fact, ice conditions have become such a hot-button issue that Dan Craig, the NHL’s go-to guy on all things frozen, was on hand to speak at the Board of Governors meeting this weekend. There were also questions about the ice posed to commissioner Gary Bettman in the same press conference where he discussed the Hurricanes ownership, Olympic participation and concussions. And while it’s the delays, cancellations and snow-and-water stopgap fixes that are grabbing attention, the league’s concerns have to go beyond the five-minute delays if ice conditions become a hinderance to the product. 

Today’s players possess more speed and skill than ever before, but the ice has to be the underlying star for the game’s greats to showcase their ability. Bad ice nullifies that aspect of the game, however, turning it into a low-scoring, chip-and-chase affair.

“The biggest concern is always that pucks start rolling and aren’t sliding,” Brendan Lenko said. “That’s the kind of stuff that the NHL needs so that the skill and finesse players can actually use their skill and don’t have to try and trap bouncing pucks all the time.”

Lenko knows what he’s talking about, too. He’s been in the ice business for years, and his company, Custom Ice, has built more than 500 rinks. Remember the rooftop rink in Toronto? Lenko had a hand in making that a reality. He’s also helped out in NHL buildings, community rinks and Custom Ice even lays down curling ice from time to time. From where Lenko is sitting, the NHL has been facing two major issues this season, and neither are easy to control.

First, there’s the battle with humidity, which can wreak havoc on the ice. More than a few cities have been hit with unseasonal temperatures and that can put some buildings into overdrive when it comes to maintaining the in-arena temperature and ensuring hard, fast ice is present. But there’s also a matter of cramming nearly 15,000 people into an arena, and the impact fans have can’t be underestimated.

“People bring in a lot of moisture and a lot of heat on their clothes,” Lenko said. “If (the arena) has the equipment to deal with it, it’s no problem, but if they don’t it absolutely creates a huge load on the ice.”

Most buildings have elaborate control systems to deal with humidity, but that’s not necessarily the case everywhere. While it’s not an NHL building, Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena had its first brush with maintaining their rink all the way into mid-June in 2015-16, but Matthew Miller, vice president of facility operations at ‘The Q,’ said they deal with humidity the “natural way,” which is to say there’s a careful balance between air conditioning and outside air. In an 800,000 square-foot building, that can get tricky, especially with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers packing the building on nights the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters are off.

Ideally, Miller explained, the building’s temperature sits in the 64 to 66 degree range for hockey, but that’s not the case for basketball. The temperature rises to 68 degrees for an NBA game and the packed house can account for an additional rise of anywhere from three to four degrees. But as much as the humidity and temperature can impact the ice, so, too, can the fact that Miller and his crew are swapping out the ice for the hardcourt on a regular basis. 

The rapid changeover in modern arenas is something Lenko pointed to as one of the other major issues facing the NHL in maintaining top quality ice, and Miller understands the difficulties as well as anyone. Not only did the Monsters play into June for the first time in their history during the past season — a campaign that culminated with a Calder Cup victory on June 11 — but the Cavaliers completed their own successful title run eight days later. That means the entirety of the post-season was spent swapping the court in and out, covering and uncovering the ice.

Miller detailed the roughly three-hour process, and it boils down to this: the boards are removed, the ice is covered with a decking material and the court is laid down. When the court is pulled up, the boards are put back in and the ice is edged, dry cut, wet cut and flooded. The covering of the ice is done by necessity, of course — it’d be thrilling to see LeBron James dunking in a pair of Bauer Vapors, but don’t count on seeing it — but leaks still do happen, moisture can get through and that can impact the ice. And though it may seem that covered ice has the benefit of safety from exposure to any damage, covering the ice doesn’t do much, if anything, for making the playing surface better in the longterm.

Miller isn’t alone in having to deal with consistent changeover, either. This season, there are 11 NHL arenas that host an additional tenant that requires a different playing surface, be it basketball or lacrosse. That includes buildings in Toronto, New York, Dallas, Buffalo, Colorado, Boston, Chicago, Washington and Philadelphia. That’s to say nothing for the events that also take place atop the covered sheet of ice in all the arenas around the league, which can include everything from concerts and trade shows to pro wrestling and monster truck rallies.

The unfortunate thing for the league in their pursuit fixing what ails their rinks is that if environmental factors and shared-use facilities are becoming two of the greatest enemies of good ice, finding a solution won’t come overnight. The league can’t control the weather and arena owners are in the moneymaking business. The interest in packing the house on non-hockey nights isn’t about disappear.

“The more it’s uncovered and the more oxygen and air that gets to an ice surface, the better it becomes over time,” Miller said. “It’s a daily challenge in a multi-use facility like ours to really get the ice surface to where it’s perfect all the time. If I didn’t have to cover it and I could leave it all the time, it would be a hockey player’s dream. But I don’t have that luxury.”

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