This week, Yorkton will have the eyes of the entire nation on them as Rogers Sportsnet, inarguably Canada’s largest and most successful sports network, televises the best curling athletes the country has to offer. In other words, the Pintys Grand Slam is in town.
Sure, everybody’s excited for curling action on the ice as the athletes fight for victory. But what you might not realize is just how interesting the process itself is in mounting such a huge event.
Since this is national television, it’s incredibly important that everything, and everyone looks their best. As you might expect, the star of the show is centre ice. It has to look good on TV, but it also has to play right -- with a certain kind of feel for the athletes playing on it.
The man in charge of making sure the ice is absolutely perfect for both the curlers and the cameras is Mark Shurek.
YTW caught up with Mark the weekend before the event on an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour, showing just what goes into making picture perfect ice for Sportsnet coast to coast.
The first step is to prepare the ice for the logos, and block your areas with black rubberized barriers.
From that point, you can start preparing the ice by “flooding” -- periodically pouring a thin layer of water on the playing area to freeze.
Once frozen, it is shaved with a special device which functions as a mini Zamboni. Then, more layers of ice are carefully added in the same manner. This ensures that the finish is consistent and sufficiently smooth. The process requires patience, an attention to detail, and an athlete’s mind. Not surprisingly, Shurek is also a veteran curler.
“Yesterday when we started, we took out the glass for the hockey ice,” Shurek says.
“From that, we do some leveling with the zamboni and some pre-floods -- levelling floods. And then, once that was done yesterday morning, we painted the ice white on top of hockey ice [itself], [and] put a few little layers.”
After that, the crew lays down special water hoses that are later used to finesse the ice surface with more detail. Before the hoses are used, though, the logos are laid down on the ice and sealed.
“Then, we put the foam in that outlies the area, and that’s what we did yesterday.
“Today, essentially what we’re doing is building layers to thicken the ice up, one and two, to get it perfectly level. Once we’re done that, we’ll scrape the ice and shape it.”
The ice is scraped by the special device mentioned earlier. It functions as a tiny zamboni and is pushed similarly to a snowblower. Its small size allows for more control and accuracy in order to refine the playing surface. Quality of ice is key, as any small deviations or consistencies can make a major difference in quality of play.
The water also has to be treated and processed. You can’t just take your average run of the mill tap water, because once frozen, the quality of the ice can be unpredictable. The pH level of the water is particularly crucial so it freezes correctly. If it doesn’t, then the ice can chip, crack, or be inconsistent. This means that speeds of the curling rock are also completely unpredictable, and therefore playing becomes a crapshoot. Winning a game needs to be based on skill, so much effort is made to ensure the actual playing surface is uniform. You can be the best snowmobile racer in the world, but if you’re asked to race your Ski-Doo in the summer on beach sand, it isn’t going to work very well. Conversely, a jet-ski isn’t going to work too well on land. You might be the best jetski rider in the world, but if you’re sitting on it in the grass, you just end up looking like a complete idiot. So, the surface matters.
“Here we have an RO system, which is good because it’s pretty hard water here in Yorkton,” Shurek says.
“Very hard, actually.”
If you’re wondering what RO stands for, it stands for reverse osmosis. Basically, the way the process works is thatwater is filtered, forcing unwanted compounds that make the water less clear, out. By doing this, the water is purer, and ends up freezing better.
Think of the process as a microscopic sieve. A chemical filter allows certain types of molecules and ions through, but it keeps other ones out. A sieve works similarly. If you take dirt with gold and put it in, the dirt will filter through, but the gold is bigger than the holes in the sieve. The gold remains, but the sand isn’t wanted, so it is filtered and discarded.
In the case of reverse osmosis, the “sieve” is a synthetic or biological membrane which acts as a filter. Known as a semipermeable membrane, instead of filtering by size like a normal sieve (sand is smaller than gold), the RO system filters by three criteria: pressure, concentration, and temperature.
As you would expect, this is literally how hard the compound pushes. Some molecules flow faster and consequently, push harder. Did you ever make “magic sand” when you were a kid, where if you move your hand gently through, it flows like normal sand, but if you push fast and hard it is thick and doesn’t move at all? Same sort of idea.
This is how pure the compound is. When you buy orange juice in one of those little frozen cans, you don’t drink it like that. You add 3 cups of water. This is concentrate in action - literally, the juice has been concentrated, or compressed, into a smaller area than originally, so it is more powerful. Purity makes a difference, and is another way the RO filter decides what to leave out.
This is just how it sounds. How hot or cold the compound is helps the filter determine what should be there and what should go.
The filter looks at all the molecules and ions that try to pass through, and it uses these three criterion to determine what will pass through.
The “good” ions and molecules have a predictable level of pressure, concentration and temperature. Since the filter knows how the molecules it will accept will behave, it looks for these patterns to let it through. Any molecules that do not follow this pattern within the acceptable threshold are discarded.
Hard water involves additional considerations to process.
“So we’re using DI (ion exchange) tanks from a company called Jet Ice which changes the pH a little bit. It pretty much takes all the minerals out of the water.”
pH levels determine how much acid there is in the water. 7 is neutral, and the further below seven the pH is, the more acid there is in the water. Anything above 7 means it is closer to a base.
For curling, typically you want your pH level to be between 5 and 6. You don’t want acid in your water.
If there is too much acid in the water, the ice will have too much grip which slows things down. The ice can also be harder to freeze and even become a sludge in places. Freezing then becomes uneven.
“Everyone thinks that moisture is the problem in the air,” says Shurek.
“[It’s actually] the opposite. It’s the cold -- [because] that makes it dry.
“The last time I was here, we had a problem with ice slowing down quite a bit because it was so dry. So that’s going to be our issue this week because it’s supposed to be -30, -40 below. That’s probably going to be a little issue for the curlers. We’ll try our best to warm up the ice.”
Of course, Shurek’s expertise typically saves the day, and it’s hard to imagine it being any different this year.
If you’re wondering what an ion exchanger does, you could sum it up as basically “taking out the trash”.
The reverse osmosis system filters out all the unwanted gunk, but even though it is filtered, it is still floating around. The unwanted refuse has to be discarded. When it comes to ions, though, rather than being junked, they are sort of refurbished in a way to something a bit more useful.
That’s where the ion exchanger comes in.
The kinds of things you don’t want in water are calcium and magnesium, because they are quite literally hardness ions. These are the two pests that, like their namesake, do exactly as described: make water hard. You still need ions, but they need to be soft ions, like salt.
Because all ions have an electrical charge, you can’t just switch them because two positively charged ions will repel each other like a magnet held the wrong way. So, a pied piper method is used. The hard ions are put in a special resin that is negatively charged. (Literally a case of opposites attract.) On the resin beads, a soft ion -- salt -- is placed. The hard ion is attracted to the resin and swapped for the soft ion. There is still a charge, but it has just been switched. Now, your water is soft.
Mark started as a curler.
“[In grade 7 or 8], I curled. I grew up in Gimli; Winnipeg Beach in Manitoba. On the school announcements, they were looking for curlers for the men’s league. So I put my name in.”
Admittedly, the quality of ice at the Pintys is a rare perk.
“One thing as a club icemaker [I think] people should understand is when you come back to work at your club, say, people would come up to me [at my club] and say, ‘Why can’t we have ice like this all the time?’
“Well, with these events, there’s maybe 18 volunteers. People have to remember that in most clubs there may only be volunteer icemakers, or there may be a paid icemaker but it’s just one guy. So two people [at most] are doing all the work at their local clubs. It’s almost impossible to maintain ice like this at a curling club.”