On a humid night in October, a college hockey game between the University of Notre Dame and the University of Denver in northern Indiana featured an unexpected 22-minute delay. The arena was rapidly evacuated, with two Zambonis left abandoned on the ice, as a line of tornadoes swept through South Bend and the surrounding region.
The very next night, a college game between the University of North Dakota and Boston College at the Silvio O. Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Mass., was called after two periods (officially going in the books as a 0-0 tie) due to fog and rough ice conditions brought on by unseasonably warm October temperatures in New England and high humidity in the rink.
Climate change has been a hot topic for some time among the folks at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has its world headquarters just across the Charles River from Harvard University’s Bright Hockey Center, in Cambridge, Mass. The scientists there even chart the average temperature change in North America over the past several centuries using something that they call the “hockey stick” graph.
The graph got its name not through some sponsorship from a stick manufacturer, but because the line on the graph greatly resembles a hockey stick that’s been laid on the floor. Like the shaft of a hockey stick that’s sitting horizontally on a flat surface, average temperatures were fairly constant for several hundred years. But then the graph line hits a sharp curve, and temperatures shoot dramatically upward (looking like the stick’s blade) during the late 20th century.
Most of us have heard dire predictions about global climate change, and how a warmer planet might doom outdoor winter sports in the future.
“One aspect of global warming is that the outdoor hockey season is going to shorten. In fact, it already has,” points out Dr. Tom Johnson, a professor of geological science at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Johnson, who grew up skating outdoors on Minnesota’s Iron Range and who plays hockey once a week with colleagues, noted that studies show the ice season is getting shorter on lakes in the Upper Midwest and in northern Europe, meaning less time for outdoor skating on naturally-occurring rinks.
But for the first time, the unseasonable October weather in places like Indiana and Massachusetts has some concerned that indoor hockey may feel the wrath of the elements as well.
“If they want to keep hockey seasons as long as they have been in the past, arena owners are going to have to pay for better refrigeration and better insulation of their facilities,” says Johnson.
That thought has the folks who design and maintain arenas poised to change on the fly.
Before migrating to the Colorado Springs offices of Serving the American Rinks (STAR) a few years ago, Don Moffat spent more than a decade perfecting the art of making ice in the Arizona desert. He said that the technology is out there to allow arenas to combat the changing elements outside, but it comes at a price.
“If arenas keep up with the technology in terms of refrigeration and dehumidification, we can combat the weather, but there’s definitely a cost to it,” says Moffatt, who serves as a director of facility programs for STAR.
“The older buildings especially were designed for seasonal use, between October and March, so in cases like that they have to take changing temperatures into account and build more refrigeration and dehumidification capacity into the building.”
Since the NHL’s southern expansion in the early 1990s triggered a wave of rink building in non-traditional hockey regions, rink operators have known about the challenges of making good ice in places like Arizona, where temps are routinely in the triple digits for part of the year, or Florida, where the combination of heat and stifling humidity are anything but conducive to producing smooth frozen water.
But now those challenges are moving north, triggered by warmer-than-normal temperatures in more traditional hockey areas like Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts. Most of the rinks in these areas were designed and built for seasonal operation or for conditions that are now being exceeded. Previously, the biggest weather-related threat that would prevent hockey from being played would come from blizzards that might make the roads to the rink impassible.
“We’re in a cycle where it’s staying warmer later into the fall, and getting warmer earlier in the spring,” says Dave Wescott, STAR’s other director of facility programs, based in Florida.
Making ice on the Gulf Coast for the past 17 years, Wescott has seen a five-fold increase in the number of hockey rinks in humidity-rich Florida, and he’s also seen the future of good playing conditions throughout North America, no matter how warm it gets outside.
The need to keep workplaces cool and dry in the manufacturing and food industries led to the perfection of a process called desiccant dehumidification. According to Wescott, that technology for climate control is the wave of the future when it comes to making good ice regardless of the conditions beyond the arena’s walls.
“For the last 50 years, ice rinks have been using mechanical dehumidification, which is essentially air conditioning, but that has its limits when dew points reach a certain level,” Wescott says.
He noted that officials with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes installed additional capacity to their desiccant systems in their arenas during their recent runs to the Stanley Cup, to produce better ice conditions as the playoffs stretched into June — definitely warm weather in Tampa and Raleigh.
In 2004, as the Lightning were on their way to winning the Cup, NHL officials noted that thanks to the desiccant system at work in Florida, the ice conditions in Tampa and Calgary were nearly identical.
The system works by using silica gel, which you commonly find in pellet form in small packets along with shoes and new clothes. The desiccant wheel absorbs moisture from the rink area by blowing air through a revolving wheel that contains desiccant material, which absorbs the water from the air.
Another great benefit to this type of system is that it allows outside fresh air to be introduced into the building. The older mechanical systems were not capable of bringing in fresh dehumidified air.
But the cost of installing a desiccant system (roughly $60,000 for a single ice sheet) has many arena owners shying away from the technology, and putting up with bad ice, fog and condensation for part of a season.
It’s that refusal to adapt that has some in the industry steamed.
“We’ve got to get beyond the ‘deal with it’ stage,” Wescott says, noting that comfortable, well-maintained arenas with good ice are vital to attracting the next generation of hockey players to try the sport.
“We can’t sell people a 1975 Ford LTD today when they’re used to driving a new Escalade.”