BRATISLAVA – On a personal level, hockey is all about practicing your wrist shot, skating, fitness. But there’s a whole other aspect to the game which is far more scientific, like the development of skates or the one-piece stick. But the grandmother of all research surely must be the attempt to make a hockey rink without artificial ice.
Such endeavours have been going on for years (see story from 2009), but no one has yet been able to manufacture a playing surface that is cheap, easy to make and maintain, and has the same characteristics of arena ice. Not to say people aren’t trying. At the Fan Zone in Bratislava, for instance, the IIHF is offering fans a chance to skate on something called Scan-ICE, a synthetic surface which is like ice – but not really. Not yet.
“This really started with the Facilities Committee,” started Adam Sollitt, Coordinator Research & Audit. He is one of only two IIHF employees who doesn’t work at the federation’s Zurich address. Instead, he lives and works in Vierumäki, Finland. “They wanted to have an official position on plastic ice, and one of my roles is to do research for the different IIHF committees. They wanted to understand how close this is to real ice. We are looking at it from two angles, the scientific, and the practical, in the form of user feedback.”
“For the first part, we have partnered with a technical university in Finland that is testing a variety of suppliers of this material. They are testing its friction values and gliding properties, both with the blade and the puck. We have one machine called a pin-on-disc, which uses a small sample of the synthetic. This goes in a machine that spins it around and then a small pin, which is part of a blade, comes down onto the machine. As it spins, we can calculate the friction of the blade.”
“We also have a big robotic arm which we can outfit with a skate, and it can skate patterns on the material to calculate the friction values. This is the first part, to find the gliding properties of ice and synthetic ice.”
“The second part,” he continued, “is the test in the Fan Zone, so we can get some user feedback. We’ve had more than 1,000 people skate on it and offer their opinions – coaches, game officials, Olympians, and many fans. We’ll take the results of our survey here, along with the research, and summarize it all for the semi-annual Congress in Turkey in September. The Facilities Committee will then make an official recommendation of how or if this synthetic ice can be used by the member associations.”
Scan-ICE is by no means the only company that is trying to make plastic ice, but it won a bid to be the demonstration surface here in Bratislava, and it has also been endorsed by Hockey Canada. As well, the company already had the material in Bratislava, making for easy setup and configuration.
It is ice-like in the sense that you put on skates to use the surface, but it is much slower than ice. Step onto it for the first time – and you don’t go anywhere. You must drive your legs much harder to move because there is far more friction than the smooth, slippery qualities of artificial ice.
Of course, the purpose of developing plastic ice is to allow countries all over the world to build hockey rinks without the substantial costs involved in maintaining ice, from electricity to cooling systems, air conditioning, and resurfacing. The first step to developing players is to get them skating and working on their skills, so the more rinks the better, whether it’s in northern Ontario or Luxembourg, New Zealand, or Mexico.
“This is definitely a more economical way to produce ice rinks,” Sollitt agreed. “For our members that have difficulty in building full-size ice rinks, this could be a great alternative.“
Sollitt’s dual role with the IIHF in research and auditing isn’t as strange as it might seem. “I did audits in about 55 of our 69 member nations,” he explained, “and afterwards I met with all of the IIHF’s committees to discuss what our members had and didn’t have, what were their needs or their requests. I bring all this back to Vierumäki, where our students spend one day a week doing a project about a specific topic. Synthetic ice is now one area where six students are also helping.”
Sollitt has discovered several other aspects about this ice which suggest it won’t be coming to a World Championship any time soon. For starters, while companies suggest the surface will last 10-20 years, the wear and tear suggests it has a shelf life closer to four years.
Also, although there is no Zamboni needed to prepare it for play, to sweep, clean, and prepare synthetic ice takes about an hour and is required every two or three hours of casual skating. Imagine two World Championship teams requiring clean ice after 20 minutes – and having to wait an hour! Not happening.
Interestingly, because the synthetic ice is softer, Sollitt reports it is an injury-free surface, which is encouraging. But, he once skated for five continuous minutes on it and then measured the blade temperature at the middle of the rocker. It was 70 degrees Celsius, so hot you would burn your finger on touch. With so much friction, the high temperature is not surprising, but not acceptable if the surface is to be used for serious games.
So there you have it, hockey fans. For the purists, the game remains the same, and for small nations hoping to develop the sport, cheaper, easier ice might be on the way – just not before dawn.