Mike Bober, Manager of Conversion and Ice Operations, is the man behind the magic of the ice installation at TDLC – as well as the daily maintenance of its surface throughout the entire season. Bober is in charge of everything that goes into putting a consistent, professional sheet of ice out for the team. And installing and maintaining the ice is a multi-step process that begins before the first layer of ice is even put down. First, the water that will form the sheet has to be meticulously filtered.
“We use a reverse osmosis system and our goal is to have very low particulates in the water. For our games, we filter the water to below 100 parts per million of particulates in the water. It’s super low, super clean water. It’s a big process, but it creates not only a clean piece of ice, but also a strong piece of ice. That’s crucial for our guys. We don’t want the ice to be brittle or chipping when the guys are skating on it,” Bober explained.
Then, the process moves on to prepping the ultra-chilled floor that sits underneath the ice, which helps to create the smoothest, best possible surface. The crew first gives the concrete an extensive scrubbing, making sure that there are no trace amounts of grease, dust, or oil on the floor. Not only do those substances affect the ice itself, they can also negatively alter how well it bonds to the concrete. After the flooring is prepped, it’s time to begin the process of putting in the ice itself. This is a step that takes time and patience.
“The entire process from there is basically thin layers,” Bober emphasized. “We start with a few layers of ice directly onto the concrete floor, which we’ve cooled down to the teens. As soon as you spray that with a fine mist of water, it freezes almost instantly. It’s called flash-freezing. After we put a couple layers of ice in that way, then we can start painting.”
And, just like with the ice itself, the painting is also done in layers. The paint used for the sheet is powder-based, and is therefore composed of mostly water. That way, it will freeze well on the ice. The crew sprays down three layers of white paint, making sure to avoid any streaks or marks. They then seal it with water before painting on all of the rink’s markings. All of the lines – the crease, the blue lines, the faceoff dots – have to be hand painted and marked before getting sealed in with another thin layer of ice. Finally, it’s time for what makes home ice ‘home’: the center ice logos.
“Putting in the logos is one of the most interesting parts, because we have such great logos in this organization. That comes in large pieces, and we get them all lined up and perfectly laid out,” Bober said. “The logos are printed on a thin mesh material – so we put it in place, spray some water on it, and squeeze that water back out. That way, it freezes instantly into its position.”
“Once the logos are in, it’s just sealing it and adding more thin layers, one at a time. We’ll spend days just adding thin layers of ice so that we get a nice strong sheet of ice.”
But in the context of desert hockey, there’s one question on most fans’ minds. How do you maintain a strong sheet of ice when temperatures are regularly in the 90s – even in October? The answer: with relative ease. Ice rinks, and therefore their ice surfaces, are far more affected by humidity than they are by straight temperature. Moist air causes condensation on the ice, which disrupts its surface.
“We actually did have a small example where we had the climate control in the building bring in a lot of fresh air when we were making the ice this season and you could see when it started to frost up,” Bober added.
“But because it’s dry here, it’s actually not a challenge. We have plenty of power compressors in our system which makes the concrete cold. The biggest time you’ll ever see a difference – from the ice detail point – is when it’s rainy here. We don’t build in a lot of dehumidification into our building because we generally don’t need it, unlike the rinks in humid areas.”
Additionally, Bober stays prepared for any temperature fluctuations that may happen during the game. Between the added ambient temperature from fans and players alike, as well as the hot water from the Zamboni, ice temperature needs to be carefully tracked.
Bober then elaborated on this, explaining how he monitors both temperatures throughout the game. “I set up my computer in the corner and just monitor the ice temps and room temps throughout gameday so that if it starts getting a little warm, we can add another compressor and get it back down and cool,” he said.
But although the climate of Nevada might not be as disruptive as fans might think to the process of maintaining the ice, the turnover in the building provides its own challenges. The Dollar Loan Center also functions as the home court for the G League’s Ignite and host to several concerts and events throughout the year. Converting the ice after a basketball court or a performance stage takes hours.
“Everybody thinks you’ve got a concert or a basketball game that ends at 10 p.m. And so you’ve got all day and all night tomorrow to get ready for the hockey game the next day. But we’ve got both teams that want to be here and they want to have morning skates, so we’ve got a little less time to get the building turned over.”
The ice is never removed during the hockey season; instead, a covering goes in to make it a stable surface for whatever sits on top of it. So the ice first has to be uncovered, then cleaned – again! – and resurfaced. But although it’s a time-consuming process, Bober isn’t worried.
“I have a great crew, and I’m able to count on my crew to have the arena cleaned and ready. That way, when I show up early in the morning to start working on the ice again, we’re good to go,” he said.
And after morning skate, preparation still isn’t finished for the game ahead. “I’ve got a crew that comes and helps out from Lifeguard Arena, that do the gameday actual during-game resurfacing. So they will come in and do an edge – basically a machine we use to scrape around the boards. They’ll edge the ice, they’ll scrape that, and then they’ll do one or two full resurfacings before gametime.”
And when resurfacing the ice, the ice crew has a lot on their mind that fans of the game might not even consider. There’s a big difference between being able to drive the Zamboni, and being able to maintain a high-quality ice product that stands up to the demands of a professional team.
“The biggest thing is – the machines are very easy to drive. Anybody can get on it and drive it. It’s very similar to driving any car. It’s becoming an operator – the time required to hone the skills of doing that, that’s the hard part. The ice is a living piece of sports equipment. It’s an art vs. science, they’re both very equal in what you need to do,” Bober said.
“You learn to be very detail-oriented, in controlling how much water you’re putting on the ice. When you’re going straight, you can put some more, but when you’re turning and going through the same area over and over again, you need to cut down how much water you’re putting on the ice. Otherwise, you get a flooded mess. In the case of a game, the goalies don’t want to get into the crease coming out of an intermission and have a puddle in the crease – and over time, you don’t want to be building up ice thickness in one part of the ice. We want as flat a sheet of ice as possible.”
And the players are just as invested in the outcome of the sheet – as well as appreciative for the high-quality produced that Bober is committed to providing for them. Some players even make getting a feel for how the ice is playing that day a part of their pre-game preparation.
“All players care about the ice. We want to provide a fast sheet of ice for them, we want a place that plays evenly and equally across the board. And also consistent from game to game. One of my favorite examples – and this could be part of his ritual, too – I love that every single game you’ll always see Paul Cotter come out on the ice.
“Way before warmups start or the doors are even open, still in his tracksuit, getting ready for the game and he’ll come out and do a little stickhandling, bounce the puck off the boards a few times. It’s great to see that he wants to know and wants to feel how the ice is before every game, we love it when guys love their home ice.”
Ultimately, what the players and Mike Bober want are the same things: good hockey, good ice, and a Silver Knights victory. Most importantly, they’re both looking forward to getting the 2022-23 season started.
“I’m excited to get our first full season in the building – super excited to get our season underway in this arena. It’s gonna be great; I’m excited to see our guys come back out here on the ice.”