Science of ice-making

Years ago, I reported on a curling ice-making course. To demonstrate new ice-making techniques, the instructor used a miniature ice sheet as well as all equipment necessary to ensure the ice remained frozen and in the top condition for tossing a rock from one end to the other. I was fascinated by the intricacies of the ice-making plant included in the scale model.

Among those huddled around the model was future ice-maker extraordinaire Hans Wuthrich, who had not yet become the world’s most famous ice technician — the preferred term for those who make the playing surface used by curlers.

What I remember about Wuthrich is how intent he was during the demonstration as well as his obvious delight as the instructor explained the mechanics of ice-making. Even before the course had started, Wuthrich made a point of describing to me how the model worked. In an enthusiastic voice, he explained the mechanics of ice-making, pointing out how performing such and such a function made all the difference between creating an ideal surface or having to curl on very poor ice. I got the impression that Wuthrich would never be satisfied until be became the “best of the best.”

I had known Wuthrich for years, although primarily as a club curler who had immigrated to Canada from Switzerland. On the day of the course, I had no inkling that he would in the future be known far and wide as the “king of ice technicians.” 

I should have realized that would be his fate, as I often saw him grooming the ice at the Gimli Curling Club  with infinite patience as he shaved the surface prior to flooding. Once the sheet was completed, he would throw rocks down the ice to see how the surface reacted. First he would throw a stone using an in-turn and then an out-turn. As the stones proceeded down the sheet, Wuthrich intently watched their glide path, gauging if the ice met his standards. 

What that ice-making course demonstrated was the science behind ice-making that Canadians have become so adept at. Decades ago, ice-making was more a hit-and-miss affair than a scientific endeavour. Many of today’s curlers can remember the time when a rock played near the wall on an outside sheet in a curling club fell back against a turn and invariably crashed helplessly into the boards. The disastrous effects can now be mitigated by the continual grooming by ice technicians skilled in the cutting-edge scientific techniques.

But Canadians have always been at the forefront of ice-making. When a contingent of Scots toured Canada in the winter of 1902-03, one of the comments they made was how the ice was “carefully watched, cleaned and doctored” in Canada. It was a surprise to the Scots that Canadians curled indoors on ice that was constantly groomed. 

In their native Scotland, Rev. John Kerr, the captain of the visiting curlers, said it took a great deal of brawn to hurl a curling rock down an outdoor rink created on a frozen pond or loch. The “doctored” Canadian ice proved too foreign to the Scots who tried their best but often failed when matched against local curlers used to playing on “carefully watched” ice.

“I’ll venture to say, however, that if the Canadian curlers came to Scotland they would have a hard time to secure the honours from our players when they contend with the natural and climate conditions that we do,” said Kerr. “I think we could beat them there.”

In fact, Kerr bitterly complained that curling in Canada was “too scientific” to his liking.

“On the covered rinks here (in Canada) the slightest swing of the arm will send the stone to the other end of the rink. Then again our ice will not permit the fine playing of in- and out-turns,” added Kerr.

What Canadians have done by using a scientific approach to making curling ice is level the playing field, allowing more people of different ages — youngsters to seniors — to participate in curling. The days of hefty hurlers slamming heavy synthetic brooms on the ice have passed, thanks in part to new equipment and the diligence of today’s ice technicians. 

While Kerr may have complained about the scientific approach used by Canadian ice-makers in the  early 1900s, technical skills have progressed to the point that a greater degree of finesse is now needed by the top competitive curlers in order to reach the upper echelons of their chosen sport.

Today’s ice technicians are part artist and part scientist, who can be seen during major competitions studying a computer screen to note ice temperature variations, looking for the slightest fluctuation that may hinder the play on the ice surface. Measurements are obtained from virtually every square centimetre of the ice — Wuthrich even uses an infrared thermometer — as the ice technicians know that a drop or increase of mere fractions of a degree can be disastrous. A building that is too hot, too cold, too humid or too dry is a nightmare for ice technicians, who then have to make multiple adjustments to ensure curlers are presented with the most consistent playing surface possible.

At one time, Western Canadians may have been noted for their hitting game, but today, Manitoba’s Kerry Burtnyk or Alberta’s Kevin Martin are just as renowned for their draws and control weight take-outs as they are for using peel weight. They are able to use an expanded arsenal of weapons because they know the ice they play upon will be consistent and perform as expected end after end.

When the Tim Hortons Brier starts this weekend (March 8) at the MTS Centre, the ice will be just as heavily commented on by sports writers as the curlers. Already, news stories have mentioned how fortunate the nation is to have Gimli’s Wuthrich and assistant Eric Montford from Winnipeg making the playing surface.

Being a Brier ice technician is no cakewalk. Wuthrich and his crew will be up long after the last game of the day to make sure the ice is in perfect shape for the start of play each morning.

Meanwhile, Wuthrich will have made the curling ice for his 12th Brier and is anticipating making ice for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He has come a long way from that ice-making course some 30 years ago in Gimli.