From pebbles to rocks

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:35 AM ET

For 40 of Ontario's best curlers, including Wayne Middaugh and Glenn Howard, there is a trip to the national championship on the line, possibly an invitation to the worlds.

But, as the Ontario men's curling championship unfolds this week, Rob Phillips may have the most at stake: His reputation.

Phillips is manager of the Whitby Curling Club and ice maker for the provincial championship.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure. These guys are playing for the Brier," Phillips said yesterday. "We want them to win or lose because of what they do, not because of something that might be wrong with the ice."

Without Phillips, no stone can be left unturned and, three hours before the first one is thrown yesterday he is fretting about water dripping from the rafters of the Iroquois Park Sports Centre.

"Of course, with Murphy's law, it's dripping right where the rocks are in play," Phillips said. And messing with a curler's ice is one of sport's mortal sins.

"It doesn't take much for something to go wrong. If something drips onto the ice it affects the rocks, then you're done," Phillips said. "The glitch we have now is that with the air in here we're getting condensation on some of the metal beams ... so when we see a drip we're sending someone up into the rafters to put plastic bags up to catch the water."

It could be worse. Three days ago, the ice here was a hockey rink -- which to a curler is like asking him to play on a pond in the cornfield. Phillips and nine volunteer ice makers from across Ontario and the U.S. cut away two inches of ice and flooded the rink with pure water. Since then they've scrapped and pebbled until after Monday's first round when they went home "and got five hours of sleep so that was a big night for us," Phillips said. "The first few days you don't sleep, you're constantly working."

The problem for an ice maker is that everything, and everyone, is working against him - from nature to human nature.

"You can put the pebbles on the ice but then you have to maintain it and all of a sudden the fans come in and you get heat coming into the building. Then they turn on the lights. Then you have the players throwing 40-pound granite stones mashing the pebbles. It's our job not to let that affect the ice and make it last for three hours. You want to have the same ice at the end as at the beginning of the game."

Naturally, sometimes things do not go according to well-made plans. For instance, here every time they turn the generators on in the adjoining hockey pad, Phillips has to whip the thermostat down at his end to keep his curling ice from turning into the Big Gulp Slushee.

"The ice melts, that's the worst thing that can happen to an ice maker but there was one time, I think it was in Owen Sound, but it doesn't matter where. The point is they had vents in the roof of the facility. The teams were playing, it was a big game, the TV lights were on and it started getting very hot. So, they decided to open the vents to the outside," Phillips said.

Big mistake. They hadn't been open to daylight in decades. "Probably 10 or, I don't know how many, bird nests and crap fell on to the ice and started melting in. The game had to be stopped," Phillips said, chuckling, "and we had to come out and clean it all up ... right there on TV. The head ice maker had to go out -- I hid in the corner."

At least no raccoon family came plummeting to its demise. "Thinking about it that way; we've got a few little drips here. We can handle that."

When nature isn't conspiring against the iceman, it's the curlers -- some of whom are like golfers. You know, the next time they miss a shot will be the first time. Just ask 'em.

"There are times the ice is at fault," Phillips said, sounding like he's auditioning for the diplomatic corps. With a little coaxing he gets real. "It's human nature to blame something or someone else. Being ice makers, we're a different breed of people. You have to be thick skinned. You have to have a good sense of humour and you have to communicate."

That means smiling and nodding a lot. "Because you can't (argue) with a player when they just threw a bad rock ... we know they threw it bad ... we know they missed it ... and if they blame the ice, we'll just say, 'Yep, we'll check it out for you.' "

Evidently, not all drips fall from the rafters.


Videos

Photos