JLC ice will be an artist's canvas

STEVE GREEN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

It is sometimes said an artist is only as good as the materials. If so, then look for a few masterpieces at the John Labatt Centre over the next nine days.

Play in the Scott Tournament of Hearts opens tomorrow in London, but some competitors in the national women's curling championship will participate in the Fort Hot Shots competition starting today.

And with the ice in the experienced hands of Dave Merklinger and his crew, the players will have the best possible canvas.

The 50-year-old Ottawa native, who lived in London for a year as a child and now calls New Westminster, B.C., home, is Canada's pre-eminent ice technician.

This is his 10th Tournament of Hearts and he's also worked at several Briers and world championships. He'll also do the ice for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

"The game has gotten bigger and for the game to continue to grow and be entertaining, you've got to have good ice," Merklinger said yesterday as the meticulous finishing touches were being applied to a conversion process that began at midnight last Saturday.

"That's the bottom line. We're talking money here. There's millions invested in the game and millions watching on TV and they deserve the best ice possible."

Merklinger, who played in the 1985 Brier as second for Earle Morris of Ottawa Navy and whose sister Anne played in four Hearts, knows curlers crave consistency in the ice more than anything.

"The ultimate compliment to me would be, 'Merk, that ice never changed from end one to end 10,' " he said. "I'm a competitive curler and I know what I want. A consistent draw (weight) from end one to end 10 is very important.

"You have to be able to feel the ice. If you can't feel the ice, you're in big trouble."

But, to borrow a phrase, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Merklinger is looking to get at least three feet of curl across each sheet, both to the middle (outside-in) and to the sides (inside-out).

Merklinger has installed curling ice in arenas from coast to coast and said the JLC is a "beautiful" building. "All the machinery's good, the humidity control is good and I don't foresee any problems."

That's not to say his job will be a stroll in the park, although he'll be on the move a lot.

"This is our relaxing time. We finish at midnight and come back at eight in the morning," he said, laughing.

"We're constantly monitoring the temperature from 6 a.m. until the last rock is thrown that night. That's a lot of miles walking."

And ice temperature is the key, involving an intricate balancing act. Get it too cold and rocks won't slide as easily. Too warm and you get slush. Variables such as the number of people in the stands have to be taken into account.

With sparser crowds, the arena is colder for morning draws, Merklinger said, adding the temperature increases with more people in the seats -- plus the television lights.

That means the temperature of the refrigeration brine circulating underneath the ice usually has to be dropped as the day wears on.

For the Hearts, an extra three-quarters of an inch of ice was added on top of the existing three-quarters of an inch used for hockey. The resulting thickness moderates the effect of having to change brine temperatures.

And contrary to what one might think, brine for curling ice is usually a little colder than for hockey, even though good hockey ice is harder and drier.

"Sometimes we pull it down to a point where hockey guys say, 'Whoa, we don't take it that low,' " Merklinger said.

"It's all about anticipation. You've got to anticipate when you're going to get 5,000, or whatever, people. That creates added heat that has to get pulled down through the ice.

"But I'd rather have a warm arena."

Merklinger has about 20 people on his crew, including the legendary Shorty Jenkins (the father of modern icemaking) as well as top local ice technicians such as Kevin Breivik of the London and St. Thomas clubs, Dan Prohaszka of Highland and Darren Sinclair of Guelph.

And then there's his "A team" -- Tim Chamanday, Father Findlay Barr and Lou Anne Pauhl -- who travel with him.

"They don't get paid; they just like coming to the Scott to work," Merklinger said.

So, is making good ice a science, or is it an art?

"It's both," Merklinger said. "Technology has improved so much, but it is a good art. I need to feel the ice, because if you can't feel it, you can't fix it."

Ladies, your ice awaits.


Videos

Photos