Ice wars: Mellon Arena crew battles to meet NHL standards
Workers at Joe Louis Arena tend to the ice Monday night, giving Evgeni Malkin a chance to catch his breath in the marathon that was Game 5.
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The man responsible for the condition of the ice might just be the coolest man in house tonight. That's cool as in unflappable, and cool as in refrigerated.
"We want the best sheet of ice for the best game that can be played," said Dan Craig, whose formal title of facilities operations manager for the NHL is better explained by his more colorful nicknames -- Cubes or Doctor Ice. "But really, it's a routine game day. Making ice in June in Pittsburgh is the same as making ice anywhere."
Passions are burning white hot for hockey, especially after the edge-of-your-seat overtime win brought the Stanley Cup final back to Mellon Arena for a sixth game. It was one of the biggest games in franchise history, which sets up one of the biggest games in franchise history tonight, because the Penguins still face elimination unless they win to send the series back to Detroit one more time.
And today is supposed to be 81 degrees with uncomfortable humidity and thunderstorms leading up a face-off in an opera house built with 1950s technology and filled with 17,000 bodies.
So why so cool?
Well, ice was made in Sun Belt cities like Tampa, Fla.; Anaheim, Calif., and Raleigh, N.C., in recent championship rounds and for playoff games this season in Dallas, where the mercury reached 100 degrees.
"We have 81-degree days in Phoenix in February all the time," said Craig, who supervised the making of the ice rink for the Ice Bowl between the Penguins and Buffalo Sabres in Orchard Park, N.Y., on New Year's Day.
The NHL has the same standard for all 30 franchises regarding heat and humidity, and hockey arenas control their climates with refrigeration units to provide air conditioning and to make ice. The standard requires the temperature in the building to be below 65 degrees.
No matter what happens, this will be the final hockey game of the season in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins are 9-1 in the playoffs and feel like they have an extra attacker on the ice because of the home crowd.
The thickness of the arena ice is about one and a quarter inches. The surface has been layered, shaved and manicured -- which sounds like something out of a hair salon -- and it gets the Zamboni treatment between periods.
"The engineering and operations crew at the arena have done a really good job. These guys run a really tight program," said Craig, who was on the job at the arena yesterday. "They all understand how special these players are. The speed is phenomenal. The passing is phenomenal."
But ice conditions are subjective. TV announcers repeatedly referred to the deteriorating ice conditions in the overtime game in Detroit, and the puck was bouncing a lot in last week's games at Mellon Arena, an indication that the surface gets choppy and rutted by the wear and tear of extended play.
"Both teams are playing on the same ice, so there's no excuses," said Penguins defenseman Hal Gill. "We're playing in June, so you don't expect the ice to be outstanding. But it's all right. A little sluggish. A little slushy."
At Friday's practice, when the arena doors were opened for delivery trucks and balmy breezes invaded the arena, defenseman Brooks Orpik said the ice conditions left a lot to be desired.
"It was the worst I've ever seen it," he said. "I don't think it favors either team. But for the quality of the game and the show on TV, it would be better if the ice was better."
Added forward Pascal Dupuis, "We all know we can make tape-to-tape passes, but the puck has been bouncing around."
Six portable air conditioning units called "chillers" have been in use since the Eastern Conference title game against the Philadelphia Flyers to control temperatures and regulate humidity, according to Jay Roberts, general manager of SMG, which runs the arena. He said the building, which opened in 1961, lacks the refrigeration capacity of newer rinks, but the portable units help to create what he called a negative pressure.
"Instead of sucking in hot humid air when we open the doors, the negative pressure makes our [cooler] air go out," Roberts said. "Our goal is to have the building as cold as we can possibly make it. We do have some challenges because of the age of the building. We're doing the best we can."
Given the high stakes involved in the quest for the Cup, the ice might be the least-noticed feature of tonight's game but one of the most important. Forward Adam Hall said players have to adjust to the conditions.
"You can get frustrated when the ice gets bad, because you know the puck is going to be bouncing or rolling," he said. "So you just simplify things, make the basic plays."
First Published June 4, 2008 12:00 am