MAGGLINGEN, Switzerland – Winter has gone. It’s not freezing anymore outside. Also not in Magglingen, the village above Biel, Switzerland, that can be reached by cable-car. Kids are playing hockey under a tent on a strange, whitish surface. Just like during the 2009 World Championship by both arenas. Ice hockey? Actually, the surface is as unfrozen as the rest. It’s plastic.
The village of Magglingen is known for the headquarters of the Swiss Federal Office of Sports. The bilingual town is the centre of sports in the country. The kids on the fake ice are from the junior organisation of the nearby club EHC Biel, and the surface is an experiment.
“There’s a short supply for ice. That’s why we want to look for alternatives,” said Matthias Remund, director of the Federal Office of Sports. “We want to know how useful this facility is and how big the costs are really going to be.”
The organisation calculates that a normal artificial ice rink has annual costs of about CHF 100,000 (€69,000), mostly due to the amount of water and energy needed for ice-making. The Swiss invested the same amount of money for their 15-by-30-metre plastic rink, a quarter of an Olympic-size ice rink, but the annual costs are next to nothing.
“SynthIce”, as they call it, is nothing new. Producers started to find solutions in the ‘60s, even wooden ones, but the feeling of skating on it was never close to the original surface in the first attempts and it was quickly dismantled by the blades. Or vice versa. Newer products are made of plastic or wax.
The Swiss are inspired by synthetic turf, more and more used on all levels of football in Europe, but not without controversy. Players complain about more injuries due to the lack of give. Also the synthetic ice makes moving a much tougher experience.
“Synthetic ice could be used especially for practising, and who knows how they’ll develop it in the upcoming years,” said Martin Schwendimann, the facility manager of the state-run organisation. “We want to test it for one year, to answer several questions and also to know for which sports it could be used like hockey, ice skating, figure skating, or bob.”
Three shifts were made on the opening event last autumn. First the Biel juniors, followed by some SC Bern and EHC Biel legends and eventually by a figure skater. The latter sport seems to be the least possible on plastic. As more precise skating should be, as clumsier it looks on plastic. The dainty girl was probably not envied as a test person.
“I don’t think that it will replace ice in competitions but it could be an addition where there’s a lack of ice, or for summer practice. As more as you practise, as better you become,” says Rolf Altorfer, the ice hockey director in the office’s sub-organisation Youth & Sports. His first impression: “You have less drive, it’s therefore tougher to skate but the puck slides well.”
Telling that, he puts away some white plastic residues from his tracksuit. It becomes clear that the rink wouldn’t last forever. Ten years are guaranteed. Maintenance needs low effort. However, some anti-friction fluid has to be sprayed onto the surface regularly.
Studies are scheduled with different exercises about skating, endurance training, shot and passing techniques and puck-handling.
“It could be an addition to normal ice. It’s interesting to have more possibilities to practise,” says Jakob Kölliker, who’s the assistant coach of the Swiss national team and head coach of the U20 national team. “We have more and more kids who want to play hockey but it’s getting more and more difficult to have ice ready for them. It could be interesting also in summer and in places where an ice rink is not feasible. Especially for beginners.”
Products like this have come a long way but the feeling when skating on it shows that it’s still no real alternative to real ice. However, it could be a first step for young kids to have “ice contact” and to be introduced to ice skating and hockey especially in countries that are not known as typical winter sports nations due to climate.
There are many companies who offer a plastic surface, promising that their product is closer to real ice than any others. The Swiss decided in favour of a U.S. product, which is imported to some European countries by Swedish Kärpät Oulu forward Jonas Andersson. His representative in Switzerland is HC Lugano defenceman Timo Helbling, a former Nashville and Tampa Bay prospect.
“We were flatmates for three years while we were playing for Nashville’s farm team in Milwaukee,” Helbling says. “The product is also tested by a similar state organisation in Sweden and there are also rinks in Denmark and Finland. It has been used for a plastic rink at the Stockholm central station and for Disneyland ice shows. I think it has a big potential, even if it’s tougher to skate.”
A salesman couldn’t say anything bad about the product he believes in but could Kölliker imagine having a major tournament or league on plastic instead of ice? “I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime,” the 55-year-old says.
Somehow, it might also be a weird feeling for the Biel juniors to practise their sport by getting “plastic time”. But they’re not afraid. They’ll return to the real Biel ice rink and practise there to be ready for the next season in their favourite winter sport.
MARTIN MERKNo cold hands: Federal Office of Sports Director Matthias Remund with a piece of plastic ice. Photo: hockeyfans.ch