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Smooth operators: They make Olympic ice nice

Some of the most important people at the Vancouver Winter Games are also the most anonymous: The four men who make the ice for all the skating, curling and sliding events. Each requires a different kind of ice.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

If you want ice at home, you just open the freezer. But if you want it at the Olympics, you call for an “ice whisperer.”

Some of the most important people at the Vancouver Winter Games are also the most anonymous. They are the four men who are responsible for making the ice for all the skating, curling and sliding events.

When you talk to them, as TODAY’s Lester Holt did, you quickly learn that not all ice is alike. Just ask Kameron Kiland, who’s in charge of the ice sheets used by the figure skaters and short-track speedskaters.

Souls on ice
On the one hand, Kiland said, is a desire for “thick and relatively soft ice for figure skating.” But then the short-track speedskaters come in, “who want the ice a little bit thinner and harder.”

It’s up to Kiland to make them all happy.

At the curling venue, icemeister Hans Wuthrich isn’t worried about how skates interact with the ice, because curlers don’t wear skates. What he does have to make sure is perfect, however, are the “pebbles” of ice that cover the surface of the curling lanes.

The ice pebbles are applied in a two-stage process. When it’s completed, they allow the 43-pound “rocks” used in the sport to glide freely and to curve, or “curl” — the action that gives the sport its name.

The ice, Wuthrich told Holt, “has to be as consistent as possible. Between every game, we do the exact same thing: We scrape the ice down and we re-pebble it.”

Image: Hans Wuthrich
Hans Wuthrich

Once the lanes are finished, Wuthrich slides rocks on each one “to make sure the ice is perfectly level,” he said.

Not-so-nice ice
The long-track speedskaters get their own huge oval of ice, and that’s the responsibility of Mark Messer, who also was in charge of the speed skating ovals at Olympic Games in Calgary, Nagano and Torino.

Messer is the one ice whisperer whose name became the subject of news reports. This is not a good thing, because if one of their names becomes public, it means something went wrong.

At the Richmond speed skating oval, the problems happened during the first week of action, when the races were held up for more than an hour because of problems with the ice resurfacing machines.

None of it was Messer’s fault, but he was the man on whom the cameras focused as coaches and competitors complained bitterly about the ice.

Image: Taylor Seitz
Taylor Seitz

The problem with the machines was resolved, but the Richmond oval has not yielded any world records and only one Olympic record, leading skaters to complain that the ice there is slow.

But the speedskaters haven’t voiced many complaints since the problem with the machines. And the ice elsewhere has not been cited as a factor. This is the way the ice whisperers like it.

Smooth operators
The final venue that relies on an ice whisperer is the sliding center, where luge, bobsled and skeleton races are contested on a concrete track that is coated with ice. The smoother the ice is, the more control — and speed — the racers have.

Since the venue is outdoors, it’s also the most difficult to maintain, icemeister Taylor Seitz told Holt.

“It gives us all sorts of different circumstances to run with — snow, rain, sun,” Seitz explained. “It makes it probably the most challenging.”

When the ice gets gouged on the banked turns, Seitz’s crew patches it by applying slush with a trowel — “like a mortar on drywall.”

Image: Kameron Kiland
Kameron Kiland

No matter where the ice is and what it’s used for, it starts with pipes built into the concrete beneath the ice surface. The pipes carry a coolant called brine. After the brine brings the temperature of the concrete below freezing, thin layers of water are frozen on top of it. A sheet of ice for any sport consists of many such layers.

It’s the proverbial thin ice: On a normal hockey rink, the ice is just three-quarters of an inch thick. The thicker the ice is, the softer and slower it is, ice makers say.

And for Olympic ice, ordinary water won’t do. In Vancouver, only demineralized water will do, because that makes for a more consistent surface.

Said Kiland: “We’ve got what we think is the best water possible here in Vancouver.”