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Poor ice conditions continue to be a concern for NHL players, arenas

An in-depth look at the number of recent complaints about the ice conditions throughout the NHL and how they are happening.

There have been a number of complaints about the ice conditions throughout the National Hockey League recently. From Gila River Arena in Arizona, to Rogers Place in Edmonton, and east to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn; the quality of the ice has been discussed.

Underneath the concrete floors in all NHL arenas is a refrigeration system. The ice surface is made on top of those concrete floors prior to the start of the preseason. Eighteen arenas feature CIMCO cooling systems for ice refrigeration, including T-Mobile Arena which will soon become the thirty-first arena in the NHL. In creating an ice surface, a chiller, compressor, and condenser are required. Currently, NHL arenas use an ammonia refrigeration system. In the future that could be transitioned to CO2, which likely will require more compressors, but will be a more sustainable system.

NHL refrigeration systems like CIMCO’s include an infrared camera to give surface temperature readings, which are maintained by a computerized monitoring system that can respond to temperature changes. The computer systems also can be programmed for scheduled usage, like hockey games, to ensure the ice is prepared for a game.

Issues can stem from a number of facets within a refrigeration system—from ice temperatures, to leaks within the cooling system. Additionally, there can be issues with the ice based on the humidity within the arena.

So far this season there have been a number of concerns regarding the quality of the ice. A number of complications occurred in such a short time-span, which has made the issue even more glaring.

New York Rangers’ head coach Alain Vigneault spoke of “horrendous” ice conditions after a win in Detroit, “When you can’t put two passes together because the puck is bouncing all over the place, makes it very hard on both players, who have some skill. It makes it hard to put that skill on display.”

The Carolina Hurricanes had to postpone a game in December against the Detroit Red Wings due to issues with the PNC Arena’s cooling system. Refrigerant leaks on both the cooling system and compressors had to be repaired, after being repaired before this season in July. Since the repairs could not be made to make the ice playable prior to 9:30 p.m. (the Red Wings were scheduled to play in a back-to-back at 7:30 p.m. and the NHL mandates a 22-hour window between start times), the game had to be postponed.

Goaltenders have noticed poor ice conditions as well. Vancouver Canucks’ goaltender Ryan Miller referred to the ice at the United Center as “the worst ice I’ve seen in my career.”  Mike Smith of the Arizona Coyotes criticized his home ice in Glendale after an overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, “That ice out there is probably some of the worst ice I have ever seen in my life… Not using an excuse, but that was bad. It’s been bad all year, but you can’t play on that. When you’ve got other teams coming in complaining about it on the ice and we have to skate on that all the time, like I said, it’s not an excuse but it’s something that has to get better. It’s like slush out there.”

Edmonton was known for having exceptional ice prior to moving to Rogers Place this season. The Oilers anticipated having some ice issues to start the season, however it was not expected that those issues would continue this far into the season. Jason Rimmer, the assistant general manager of engineering at Rogers Place, noted in January that the systems that maintain the ice are completely functional. Instead, Rimmer attributed the problems to the structure of the new building—such as the bowl structure and location of the championship banners that have affected the airflow and lack of humidity (which is currently at approximately 10 percent, when it should be between 20 and 40 percent according to Rimmer).

The Oilers’ ice struggles were expected due to the new arena and adjustments are being made accordingly. Other arenas have deeper issues—like the home of  the New York Islanders, the Barclays Center. Last season, the ice at Barclays was described as “awful” by [at the time] Islanders’ forward Kyle Okposo. Earlier this season, Islanders’ forward Cal Clutterbuck echoed Okposo’s sentiments, calling the ice “unplayable.”

It was reported that the Barclays Center does not meet the NHL’s structural requirements for their ice system. Rather than having the required steel piping, which can maintain the ideal temperature of 21 degrees, the Barclays Center features polyvinyl chloride (PVC) piping. In order to correct the piping, the Barclays Center would have to tear up the floor and install a steel piping system.

It was announced earlier this season in November, that the NHL would be sending experts to investigate the ice conditions at Barclays Center. NHL Commissioner Bettman later addressed the situation at the 2017 NHL All Star Game explaining, “There are some issues about playing in Barclays, it may be fundamental to the ice system and that’s not something that can be fixed in the short term.” Bettman added, “I think as is prudent, Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky are reviewing the situation and looking very seriously at what their options are,” meaning the Islanders are considering relocating to another arena.

The ice is such an integral part of hockey, so it is imperative that the NHL improves the conditions throughout the league. The League had Dan Craig, senior director of facilities management for the NHL, speak to the owners at the Board of Governors meeting during All Star weekend in Los Angeles to stress the importance of ice management efficiency. Bettman explained how the League’s concern is “fundamental breakdowns: a hole in the ice where the ice went soft, where the system breaks down.” “Let’s not get complacent,” Bettman continued on the ice conditions, “Because we generally don’t have ice problems, and maybe it was a full moon, maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it was bad luck, but we had a few building issues in a very short period of time. Our goal is to do better and to have our buildings do better.”

In addition to having Dan Craig meet with the owners, the NHL and NHL Players Association created the “Playing Environment subcommittee.” The committee was established to evaluate the ice surfaces around the league. Based on reviews from players who will fill out surveys about the ice conditions from each arena, the committee and Dan Craig will look to improve the ice quality.

Although it will be impossible to have identical ice conditions throughout the league, due to the distinct environment each arena is in and differing usages of each venue, there needs to be more consistency. The ice is much more than just a playing surface in hockey, so the priority has to be the conditions to ensure every game is as competitive as possible. Lesser ice conditions can include soft or slushy ice, as well as ice with a rough surface.

Pucks react differently on low quality ice, taking odd bounces and increasing the chance of injury. Game plans should not have to be altered in order to compensate for the ice surface, especially not on a consistent basis while playing in arenas like Gila River Arena and Barclays Center. Ideally, the league somehow finds a way to make progress with the quality prior to the playoffs so the games are not plagued by ice issues.