Ice maker has cool summer job

When most people are thinking about chilling poolside, Pakulak and his crew are layering up to spend some time on ice so that thousands of locals can pursue their passions of hockey, figure skating, or just free skating when the weather outside is warm.

Rob Pakulak has the coolest job in town when summer hits.

When most people are thinking about chilling poolside, Pakulak and his crew are layering up to spend some time on ice so thousands of locals can pursue their passions of hockey, figure skating, or just free skating when the weather outside is warm.

“It’s something I look forward to,” said Pakulak, who has 15 years experience putting in ice surfaces in Nanaimo. “When we’re done, we like to go upstairs, have a coffee, and admire our work while we can because it gets pretty chewed up in about a week.”

Across Canada every year, millions of people spend hours each week on the ice or in arena stands, oblivious of the process of freezing a thin layer of ice – most community arenas have just five centimetres or so of ice between skate blades and concrete floor – and the artistry and precision required to get it just right.

The process begins, says Pakulak, by using a fire hose to put down about two centimetres of water over the concrete slab that is cooled to –8 C by kilometres of brine lines buried within the concerte. Once frozen, crews colour the ice white with a non-toxic paint.

“I just assumed the water froze that colour, like an ice cube,” said Jill Shepherd, program assistant for Nanaimo’s arenas. “But without the paint you would be able to see down to the grey floor. I just recently learned all the work that goes into this and thought it was quite interesting.”

It takes four or five days to complete each ice surface.

Once the first layer is frozen, the crew gets to work laying down the lines, which include the icing, blue, and red lines, as well as the goal creases, face-off circles and hash marks.

It’s a non-technical process. A length of yarn is spanned between the boards and frozen in place with water from a water bottle, acting as guidelines for the paint. A crew member then painstakingly paints between the two pieces of yarn with a brush to make the line.

“It takes about eight hours to get all the lines down, then a little more if there are sponsorship banners that need to be displayed,” said Pakulak. Sponsorship banners are thin pieces of material that lay between the first and second layer of ice.

After all the lines and banners are in place, a layer of hot water is spread over top of the first to bury the painted lines so they hold up to the wear and tear of constant use in the arena and form a strong bond within the ice itself.

Zambonis, which require a certificate to operate, use water as hot as 100 C to clean the ice.

A.J. Hustins, vice-president of the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce, was on hand to watch the first ice of the year in Nanaimo go in. He said Nanaimo is fortunate to have four sheets of ice available for residents and stressed their economic importance.

“I’ve never seen ice go in, so it’s good to see what the process is,” said Hustins. “But these ice surfaces are also very important in attracting out-of-town teams and other users to Nanaimo who stay in our hotels, eat at our restaurants and spend time in the community. We’re fortunate to have them.”

Though watching the installation is about as exciting as, well, watching water freeze, Pakulak has had some fun with it in the past.

In 2003, he and former Nanaimo Clippers player favourite and team captain Michael Olson, now the Clips’ assistant coach, buried Olson’s championship medal from his previous season with the Tisdale Trojans at centre ice of Frank Crane Arena. It was a good omen – the Clips won the BCHL championship that season.

“Nobody but Michael and I knew it was there all season,” said Pakulak. “After the Clips won, we dug it out and gave it to the team.”

Pakulak and his crew won’t have long to admire their currently pristine ice surface. Power skating, figure skating, hockey camps and free skating all start this week.