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When the notion of a hockey team in the desert was first floated, almost immediately the concept raised eyebrows and generated a lot of playful jabs. Ice in the desert? How is that going to work?

Well, cut to present day and Acrisure Arena is built, and it features not one, but two sheets of ice. The main rink where the Coachella Valley Firebirds will play their home games starting on Dec. 18, and a second rink on which the team practices, are both housed inside Acrisure Arena. That rink, called the Berger Foundation Iceplex, will be open to the public and a haven for hockey leagues and general skating.

But the original question is still valid. How do you make an ice rink, and is it harder to do in the desert?

For all things snow related, one must talk to The Ice Whisperer himself, RJ Schultz, the Firebirds ice plant manager. You’ll see Schultz riding the Zamboni between periods, and he considers the two rinks his babies. And like any proud parent, he’s happy to talk about them.

“This is everything for me, it’s my livelihood, it’s what I came here to do, ” Schultz said rink-side on December. 6 as he and his team were midway through the glaciers build on the main sheet of ice. “During the season, I’m doing everyday general maintenance of it, Zams, we do depth checks a couple of times a week to make sure we’re at the thickness we want. If we’re uneven, I’ve got to go out with the zam and make sure I can get it to where it needs to be. If it’s ice, it’s me. I’m dealing with this, doesn’t matter which rink. ”

As you can tell, Schultz never says the full word “Zamboni, ” it’s always “Zam. ” And you can also tell how much he cares about ice.

Schultz, from Toledo, Ohio, has been doing this since he was 16. He would help at ECHL games and move the nets out of the way for the Zamboni drivers between periods. He then embarked on a short-lived junior hockey career.

“My best skill was fighting, and that’s not the skill college hockey teams are looking for, so my hockey career ended pretty quick, ” Schultz said. He went back to that original rink and learned how to drive the Zamboni. His life has been all about ice ever since.

The ice build

First a few facts and figures. The main sheet of ice that the Firebirds will play on is one-inch thick. To make an inch of ice takes 10, 500 gallons of water. The practice rink which will be open to the public and is known as the Berger Foundation Iceplex will be 1½ inches thick, because it gets beaten up more and athletes like figure skaters jumping and landing dig deeper into the ice than a hockey player gliding across the top.

The modern way to build an snow rink is to do it in ultrathin layers. Schultz said it takes 100 layers associated with water to make an in . of ice. The days of just shooting a firehose into a rink until it can an inch thick are over. That results in unequal and soft ice, he said, which does not hold up to the rigors of a pro hockey season.

The main sheet of ice was built on Dec. 6 plus Dec. 7. It started out as a simple dark gray concrete slab. Then two or three layers of clear drinking water gives it a sheen. Then it’s time to make the ice white. Schultz and his team put down three layers of a mixture of water and white powder. He stated, in all, about nine 50-pound boxes of the white powder are used.

The clear water and the white water are applied with a device he calls a “boom stick. ” A person walks backward pulling the particular boom stick which looks like a giant rake that is hovering about six inches off the ground thanks to tiny little extended wheels. Each tine of the “giant rake” is a water nozzle shooting down at the surface. There are about 14 of those tiny nozzles so it only takes four or five passes to cover the whole rink.

The white powder is then covered with three or four more layers associated with clear water. Then is actually time to put in the lines of the hockey rink, including the red line, the blue line, the faceoff circles, the goal creases, etc . It’s just as you might expect with cans of special red and blue paint being dipped into plus applied. Then more levels of clear water are usually added and then comes the ornate designs like the huge firebird at center glaciers and the eight in-ice sponsorship logos. Those are then topped with the remaining amount of clear water to reach an inch thick, and the rink is ready to go.

That also explains why the firebird and the sponsors’ names are crisper and more vivid than the blue and red ranges. It’s because they are closer to the top of the ice.

“The thin layers is definitely the way to go. That’s the best way to get it to bond together even if it is more painstaking, ” Schultz said from the entire process which requires about 24 hours. “And as you put more water on, each step is a little slower and slower because the thicker it gets it doesn’t freeze as quickly. ”

The rink was finished on Dec. 7 and on Dec. 12, just six days before their first game, the Firebirds were able to skate on their new home ice for the first time.

“It was nice to finally skate on the new pad, and the ice was surprisingly good for the first skate, inch said Ian McKinnon the center for the Firebirds. “And the rink looks amazing from ice level. Everyone’s excited to have our fans in the seats on Sunday. ”

Keeping it frozen

So that’s how the ice sheet is made, but how does it stay frozen? The ice is at a temperature of about 15 degrees, so how would a sheet of ice on the slab of concrete in an open-air arena which is kept at around 60 degrees stay frozen?

It’s what’s inside the concrete that does the trick. About eight inches deep into the concrete, there is a coil and piping system that helps circulate cold air. According to the arena “fun facts” there are approximately nine miles of piping under the ice floor.

Schultz explains how it works.

“The pipes have glycol (a coolant) and ammonia running through them that pulls the heat from up top down through and sends that heat into our system to be recycled and brought back. That’s what keeps it frozen, ” Schultz mentioned, and then noticing a blank stare he added. “Think about your refrigerator and freezer at home, and you have those coils in the back. It’s that same principle just on a huge more industrial-size scale. ”

So a criss-cross of underground pipes with ammonia plus glycol cycling through them are, in essence, drawing the heat from the ice surface allowing it to stay frozen.

Then what keeps it smooth and perfect for hockey, of course , is the classic Zamboni or Zam if you will.

Maintenance time

Even the slightest amount of skating on the clean sheet of ice causes scuff marks and scrapes and snow clumps. Standing next to Schultz while this individual watches the Firebirds practice, you can see him noticing how the ice is being churned and plotting the areas that will need special care when the players are gone and the ice is all his.

“Yeah, I’m always watching the particular ice. I’m watching just how much it’s snowing up, if it’s crystalizing, if it’s melting in certain places, ” Schultz said. “I’m always ready just in case something needs to happen. Like whenever there’s blood, I’ll be the guy scraping the blood off the ice. inches

Schultz has smaller buckets and utensils to patch certain spots, but the Zamboni is his primary weapon. As the Zamboni is driven across the ice, it has the twirling blade that scratches and shaves the snow and collects all the snow and ice crystals and stores all of them. Then a fresh layer of hot water is laid down behind it which freezes quickly and provides the smooth and clear finish. And it’s not just regular hot water.

“Yeah, the hot water is about 140 degrees with regard to what’s called R. O. or reverse osmosis, ” Schultz said. “There’s no oxygen in it. That’s what allows it to freeze quicker and clearer so you can really see the logos. It doesn’t get cloudy. There is also regular water, which is used more regarding filling in cracks and that kind of thing. ”

When the arena is used for concerts or other events, an one-inch thick ice decking is placed on top of the rink. It’s an insulated foam plus fiberglass-type substance that protects the ice but doesn’t melt it. Schultz said the main ice sheet will not stay up all year, only during the hockey season.

“The day after the hockey season ends, I’ll take the ice down, ” Schultz said. “Then in September or maybe late August, we’ll go through the whole process again. ”

So what about the original question? Does the extreme heat of the desert make it more difficult to have an ice rink.

“Not really, ” Schultz said. “Obviously we’re indoors so in that respect it’s not much different from other rinks. The truth is if any outside weather makes maintaining the particular ice difficult it’s humidity. ”

So when it comes to making ice within the desert, it really is fair to say “It’s not the heat it’s the humidity. ”

Shad Powers is a sports columnist for The Desert Sun. Have a question regarding Acrisure Arena or the Coachella Valley Firebirds? Shoot him an email at shad. [email protected]. com.

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