Smooth Skating

By Randy Gaddo

In the late fall and early winter months across North America, parks and recreation professionals turn their eyes to the sky, their noses to the wind, and their ears to the Weather Channel, waiting for signs of that first freezing day.

In climates where the cold north winds blow as harbingers of winter, residents begin thinking about ice activities, from professional hockey to recreational skating. Meanwhile, recreation-facility managers of outdoor rinks must start thinking about making and maintaining the main attraction—ice.

Whether the rink is indoors or outdoors and regardless of the size of the facility, developing a smooth, safe, and effective sheet of ice is not a simple process.

A Slippery Slope
For example, in Greece, N.Y., a community outdoor ice rink made its debut just two years ago. Located on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, this town of nearly 100,000 is on the cusp of those cold north winds.

Ultimately, a passion for parks is what drove the initiative, according to Peter O’Brien, the Greece Parks and Rec Director. He says that Town Supervisor William Reilich vowed to improve the quality of life for town residents and one way to do that was to bring in a community ice rink. Reilich used recreation trust funds and grants to make the ice a reality.

Once the project was funded, it was up to O’Brien and his staff to make it work, along with help from other departments. “Fortunately, our department has a great relationship with the Department of Public Works staff, which includes engineers,” he says.

The rink is located at the main town hub, on the north end of the town hall campus just outside the community center. The area is already lighted and fenced, and restrooms are available inside city hall, but accessible from the outside, and in the community center when it is open. There’s a temporary shed with heat and benches for people to change into skates and outdoor speakers for music. There are even bleachers for spectators.

The 175-foot-long by 65-foot-wide rink is built on a set of pickleball courts, which presents a challenge :the land is pitched to sheet-drain water off the courts, which is difficult when trying to keep the water there for ice. The team of parks and rec and public works staff members developed a plan to account for the pitch, including extra bracing for the rink siding.

To form the ice rink, O’Brien says the department bought a kit from a Wisconsin company that specializes in temporary outdoor-rink liners, sideboards, brackets, and accessories. The siding is made of plastic boards connected with metal brackets supported by wood on the outside. The liner is one continuous sheet of white plastic 10 millimeters thick.

Once all of that is in place comes the tricky part—flooding the rink. In its simplest terms, the process is much like taking a garden hose and turning on the water. “You can utilize a fire department and a hydrant if there is one nearby,” O’Brien notes.

The tricky part is the “when” and not so much the “how.” “When to do it is important,” O’Brien says, noting that just before an anticipated big freeze is the magic time. “Too early and it sits there as an attraction for debris, animals, kids, etc.,” he says. “Too late and you could miss a freeze. Every place is different, and everyone fills their rinks differently. You just have to figure out what works best in your area.”

That’s easier said than done, however, since people are relying on Mother Nature, who can be irritatingly unpredictable.

“Determining when and how to flood the rink is definitely a challenge,” says O’Brien, who adds that both staff and patrons must be patient, “patient enough to understand that it will freeze eventually, but with the understanding that in unseasonably warm winters, those times may be few and far between during the season.”

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Maintenance Methods
Once the ice is established, there is constant maintenance to keep it safe for skaters. Safe, in this case, means no deep cracks, no crackling when walking on it, and no extreme rough patches where skates may get caught up. To maintain a smooth surface, a resurface tool is important. It has a hose attachment and is used to clean the surface while the hose lays down a thin layer of water that freezes to make the water like glass.

Daily maintenance checks are also part of the routine once the ice has formed. “This includes walking on the ice and outside the rink, checking for cracks in the ice, holes in the liner, and low spots or melting areas, as well as debris that could be hazardous to skaters,” says O’Brien. Outside the rink, checklist items include leaks, broken or protruding boards, and anything suspicious that could cause a threat to the integrity of the rink.

Once the rink is established, re-flooding and grooming the rink are important and can vary depending on the weather. “In periods of moderate-to-heavy snow, we make sure to keep the snow off the rink so it doesn’t act as insulation to the ice,” he says, adding that snow removal is done by hand so as not to damage the ice with the blades of a snow blower.

For someone planning on developing a new rink, O’Brien suggests beginning at least a year ahead of time, then researching and asking for help. “Know the ground on which you are putting the rink; just because something looks flat doesn’t mean it is--get it laser shot to determine the pitch,” he says, adding that the thickness of the liner is also important. Too thin and the liner may crack or tear; too thick and it may be hard to work with.

He also emphasizes the following:

  • How the rink will be operated (determining how much paid and volunteer staff will be needed)
  • Whether fees will be charged
  • What will rink rules be
  • What will be the hours of operation
  • Who will maintain it, remove snow, groom ice, etc.

Organizational Experience
All of these are important lessons learned that come with experience; and experience with ice rinks is one thing that is plentiful in North York, Ontario, just 150 miles from Greece, northwest across Lake Ontario. That is the home of the Ontario Recreation Facilities Association (ORFA) (www.orfa.com), a not-for-profit, volunteer-driven organization that provides services irrespective of geographic borders.

ORFA, which started in 1947, today has more than 6,000 members who operate and manage recreation facilities, including ice rinks in municipalities, educational institutes, government agencies, First Nations (formerly Indians, indigenous peoples of the Americas) communities, and the private sector.

“In the U.S., a 17-year partnership with the U.S. Ice Rink Association grants a licensing agreement that allows for use of ORFA-designed training material and the issue of the NHL-recognized Certified Ice Technician training materials and professional designation,” says ORFA Technical Director Terry Piche, who has more than 20 years of experience in the field. While much of ORFA’s focus is on indoor arenas, the organization possesses a wealth of information about ice rinks, ice making, and maintenance in general, and much of the information about indoor ice transfers to outdoor ice as well.

Smoothing Out The Rough Patches
Whether a rink is inside an arena or outside in nature, certain basics apply to both.  “Every ice rink is built differently, and as such offers its own unique challenges,” says Piche. He suggests that funds and attention should be spent first on mechanical and structural operations, and only after those critical items are covered, to worry about things such as concessions or parking lots. These decisions can often end up saving, or costing, the rink owner thousands of operational dollars.

Piche says it is important to have someone on-hand who is trained and experienced in all aspects of rinks and ice before, during, and after construction because not having such a person will often result in poor workmanship, incorrect use of materials, or incorrect equipment installation. 

Once the rink is built and the ice is formed, having trained and experienced staff members working on it is also important. “Be clear—working at an ice rink takes skill and understanding to be successful,” says Piche. “Beyond infrastructure maintenance, ice maintenance has to form part of the daily operations. An ice technician understands ice-making techniques, conditions, and industry operational best practices.”         

Not all best practices will apply at each rink; however, knowing how things are done elsewhere can help facility managers determine what might work best for them in their given set of circumstances. For example, while using volunteers to help oversee a simple outdoor rink for public skating might be effective, it may not work if the rink is being used for youth hockey. “Volunteers might be used for some work specific to their event, but it should come with facility staff oversight and direction,” Piche suggests.

Proper Planning
As many people know, proper planning prevents poor performance, and this adage is applicable to ice-rink maintenance as well. “One of the most challenging aspects to ice-rink maintenance is lack of planning,” says Piche.  Many rink owners are unprepared to accept the ongoing costs of rink upkeep and will push maintenance and repairs to the breaking point, which ultimately lead to higher costs, staff frustration, and customer dissatisfaction. When it comes to ice and rink maintenance, planning the work and working the plan is the best way to ensure smooth operations.

ORFA has many ice rink-related educational and instructional materials available, some open source and some available only to members. Before temperatures go below 32-degrees Fahrenheit and the water hose is turned on, it is wise to get educated on the ups and downs of ice. “Ice rinks are more complicated than the average person can comprehend,” Piche says. “An ice sheet is a living, breathing entity that is in a constant state of flux that requires individuals who understand it.”       

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.