Canadians:The Ice Rinks Masters

Although modern refrigeration technology has made it possible to make ice anywhere, Canadians are seen as natural ice makers in the same way as French are regarded as born vintners. Canadian ice expertise is displayed in broad number of sports applications such as curling arenas, hockey rinks, figure-skating venues, speed-skating ovals, outdoor skating paths and in leisure facilities.

"I think it's just in our blood," says Dan Craig, director of operations for the National Hockey League. "All the good ice makers seem to come from Canada. Next best is the northern states."

"It's a national tradition," says David Sinclair, an executive at Cimco, a world leading builder of ice rinks. "We all grew up with ice. I think we understand it."

Founded in 1913 as the Canadian Ice Machine Co., Cimco has since built more than 4,500 hockey rinks, including most of the arenas used by the NHL. If you want good ice, Mr. Sinclair explains, you need to start with a good rink. The concrete floor beneath the ice, for example, must be level to within one-sixteenth of an inch -- an uneven floor means the ice will have varying thickness, making it impossible to maintain a consistent temperature and hardness.

Cimco has constructed rinks all over the world, from a mountaintop in Venezuela to Bahrain to the Prince's Garden in Munich. In 1986, Cimco was hired to fix the beautiful but notoriously poor Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park, New York. Three months later, the rink was up and running, with "beautiful, beautiful ice," as one city official said.

Although some New Yorkers criticized on calling in foreigners to do the work, the rink owner defended saying that Canadians were the obvious choice: "If you want a job done, you hire the best."

Contrary to what you might expect, the ice on a hockey rink is just over an inch thick. For elite players, the ice must meet a precise set of specifications. And no one is better at doing it than the NHL's Mr. Craig.

"It has to be just right," says Mr. Craig. "The players know the difference."

Mr. Craig studies ice with a critical eye. He knows if it's too soft, too hard, too dry, or too wet. He can tell if the water used to make it contained impurities, or if the last flood applied to it was too heavy. He can see warm spots produced by windows or hot television lights.

At 49, Mr. Craig has been making ice for nearly four decades. He got his start at an outdoor rink in his hometown of Jasper, Alta., where he helped shovel and flood, the beginning of a long love affair with ice. He was soon using instruments to measure temperature and humidity, and studying refrigeration systems. In 1986, he was hired by the Edmonton Oilers, and worked with players who were connoisseurs of ice, including Paul Coffey and Wayne Gretzky.

Since then, Mr. Craig has become known as the NHL's top ice expert. He takes a deep pride in his ice: "I work with some great hockey players," he says. "And I know they don't have to worry about the ice under their feet."