The ice maker
Standing alone in the middle of a dark, cold hockey arena at three o’clock in the morning may seem a bit odd, but it’s been a second home of sorts for Gary Lee.
For the past several years, the Rugby resident has taken the graveyard shift to flood the rink, forming the sheet of ice at the Al Wentz Arena.
It’s a labor of love for Lee, who recalls many happy memories as a kid skating with his older sisters on a small creek near their home in the Westhope area.
“I loved skating and we would shovel a path on the creek and spend hours skating,’ he recalls. “Every once and a while we would get to go skate at the rink in Westhope. That was a big deal.”
Lee’s first few pairs of skates were hand-me-downs from his sisters. It wasn’t until he skated at the rink in Westhope that an older kid pointed out to him he was wearing girls skates. “I didn’t know that, to me they were just skates,’ he laughed. “However, my mom fixed that by putting black shoe polish on the white skates.”
Lee didn’t get the chance to play hockey growing up, and wished he would have had the opportunity.
Fortunately, his son, Dan, did, and participated in the Rugby Hockey Association for several years.
“He really enjoyed it and Barb and I saw how excited he was to play,’ Gary said.
Even after Dan graduated, Lee has continued to help out every year in preparing the ice for another season of skating.
While many volunteer their time to help run the arena and hockey program, Lee is one of the few that doesn’t have a child or grandchild involved.
“Somebody asked one time why I was still out there, and I said, this program and arena benefits a heck of a lot of people. We’re really fortunate to have it.”
Making ice takes a lot of time and patience. Lee points out that several other volunteers pitch in to get the rink ready each fall. It’s estimated that 105 floods were applied over a three week period to form the ice.
Each year of ice making is different, Lee said. Weather plays a big factor in determining just how many floods are needed. The colder it is, the faster it can set up.
Because the arena floor is gravel, the process to make ice is longer.
The cooling pipes are covered with sand, and quite often the sand settles in spots and more is needed to cover them. Lee says problems arise once in a while where sink holes appear.
“And it seems like water keeps going down and down into a bottomless pit and never freezes,’ he said.
Usually it takes several floods before, eventually, water covers all the pipes and it begins to freeze. The pipes carry a fluid, usually consisting of brine or chloride, that enables the layer of water on top to freeze.
Once there is a layer of ice over the pipes, volunteers paint the ice a milky white. At one time, sheets of white crepe paper were set on the ice to give it a “white look.”
Following the painting, a few more floods are applied on the sheet and then crews paint the lines and face-off circles and goalie creases. And then a few more floods are applied.
“I think it’s mind boggling for some to think how long it is to make the ice,’ Lee said. “I’m sure some think you turn a switch and the ice is made. That would be nice.”
The floods are put on throughout the day and often at night and in the early morning hours when the temperatures drop. The doors are left open to enable the cold air to come into the arena.
Lee said he doesn’t mind being out there alone in the dead of night and hasn’t run across any phantom hockey players on the ice.
“No, but there was one time when I was standing out there and I got the feeling I was being watched,’ he said. “A few minutes later I took a light and happened to spot a cat sitting up on top of the bleachers. It must have gotten inside when the doors were left open.”
A year ago, Lee was the first to discover the collapsed roof inside the arena’s ice resurfacing machine (Zamboni) room on the south side on November 6.
Gary came back to put on another flood when he noticed something on the ice.
“As I got to the Zamboni door I noticed snow on the ice and the arena’s south wall was bowed inward and I couldn’t open the door to the Zamboni room,’ he recalls. “I looked through the door’s glass and could see stars. I knew that wasn’t a good sign.”
Heavy, wet snow caused the roof to collapse, which damaged the Zamboni and part of the compressors which run the ice plant.
“There was a lot of work to clean out the room and we thought we may not be able to use the rink that season.’
However, Lee and many volunteers went to work. They cleaned out the snow and debris, and, remarkably, the sheet of ice was ready by early December. Eventually, a tarp used to temporarily cover the roof in the Zamboni room was replaced with a new roof.
As long as he’s able, Lee plans to continue to play a part in helping the hockey association make ice.
The arena not only serves as the home to the Ice Hawks youth hockey programs, but also provides public open skating and adult hockey.
“Skating has always been something that has brought a lot of good childhood memories for me and this is a way to provide that opportunity for others.
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