Lord of the Brier rings

STEVE GREEN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:32 AM ET

LONDON, Ont. -- Gimli, Man., population around 6,000, is home to the largest Icelandic community outside of Iceland, a pretty large Viking statue -- and the head ice technician for the 2011 Tim Hortons Brier.

Now Hans Wuthrich is originally from Switzerland, not Iceland, but he still knows his frozen water. He was the lead man for the 2010 Olympic curling events in Vancouver and now brings his talents to London for the national men's championship, which starts Saturday at the John Labatt Centre.

For Wuthrich and his crew of about 20, the work began Monday morning -- 12:01 a.m., to be precise.

It takes up to four days to convert the ice from hockey to curling -- and it's painstaking work:

* The ice is shaved down to a maximum of 3/4 of an inch.

* A laser level is then used to see how level the ice really is. (Wuthrich said the JLC was within 5-6 millimetres, which is pretty good.)

* The ice is then flooded through a hose with deionized water (it freezes quicker and has very few minerals that can break ice up at the surface) to get it as level as possible.

* Once that freezes, the ice is painted white and once that dries, the rings, sponsor logos, lines, foam dividers and hacks are all put in place.

A few more hose floods get the ice to the desired thickness and it's then scraped and pebbled -- "maturing the ice," as Wuthrich explained it during a brief break from his work Tuesday.

"By (Thursday) night, we should have it ready to play on and we'll have some local curlers come in and try it out," he said. "Once you get the ice going and the people coming in, the goal is to keep it consistent for the whole week. The ice should be the same a week Sunday for the final as it is this Friday for the Hot Shots (skills competition)."

Naturally, that's easier said than done.

Any one of a number of things -- dust on the ice falling from the overhead rafters, a severe change in the weather, equipment failure -- can be a potential nightmare. For example, the JLC has no dehumidifiers, so a big crowd inside and warm temperatures outside could pose a challenge, Wuthrich said.

"There's always stuff you never expect. They're calling for two inches of rain on Friday. Is that going to bother us? I don't know."

Wuthrich won't get much of a chance to watch the games. When he's not helping set up the sheets before each game or during the fifth-end breaks, he'll be in front of a computer monitoring feedback from a wireless ice monitor he helped design which measures inside and outside temperatures, relative humidity, dew point, "everything."

And while he said he's not nervous -- he's been doing ice at top-flight events since the 1992 worlds in Geneva -- he said he still has the occasional moment when his hands shake a touch.

"If you don't have that, you're not good enough to do this because it means you don't care enough. And you have to care."

The players certainly do. For as talented as they are, their performances are only as good as the stage they're given to perform on.

"The better the ice, the better the shotmaking and the more confident a player will be when it comes time to make a difficult shot," Wuthrich said.

And the less you hear about us, the better it is."

Wuthrich came to Canada 35 years ago and cut his teeth in the business at the old curling club in Gimli. Over the years, he learned from some of the best.

"Guys like Marcel de Witte, Shorty Jenkins, Don Lewis were all mentors to me," said Wuthrich, who's carrying on their legacy of world-class icemakers. His gold medal, so to speak, was Vancouver.

"People don't realize how stressful that was. Twenty-three days we left the hotel at 5:30 every morning and the earliest we got back was maybe 11:30 at night. And there was a lot of stress on you body as well; you spent hours on your feet."

By comparison, the Brier will be a breeze, but certainly not any less important.

"I think every competitive curler should have to work on an organizing committee for something like this," Wuthrich said. "Not just the ice, but every aspect. I don't think a lot of people understand how much volunteer labour goes into something like this."

One who definitely does is Ted Smith. As he was for the 2006 Scotties Tournament of Hearts at the JLC, he's chair of facilities for the Brier -- the JLC, rocks, scoring, officials, communication and signage, construction of the media bench and TV area as well as media workroom all come under his purview. He's got almost the same committee in place from five years ago, which makes this time around a lot more comfortable.

"Oh, definitely. We were really just feeling our way around the first time," Smith said. "Now that we've got all of the same directors in place, we've got a good handle on things."

Waiting to get their hands on the JLC wasn't easy.

"Other areas, like banquets and ceremonies, have already had a lot of specific planning and detailed scheduling," Smith said. "For us, it's been, 'Let's get this thing started already.'

"But the JLC staff have been so accommodating. Anything we need done, all we have to do is ask and that's what's making our lives so much easier.

"We've been lucky that way."

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