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Turning a casino into a curling rink ain’t easy

The ice sheet cometh. The floor of Casino Rama is transformed for curling. (TSN)

Rama, Ontario -

Sitting at one end of the Casino Rama Entertainment Centre, a venue that usually accommodates some 5,000 people for a concert or show, you're left to wonder just how it is that pro curlers are battling each other on the top-notch sheet of ice in front of you.

If you've got about a hundred home air conditioning units and some extra (well, a lot of extra) automobile coolant knocking about, you could find out.

Usually the concrete floor at the Rama Entertainment Centre (site of the 2013 Dominion All-Star Skins Game) is covered with portable chairs in order to allow top-ticket buyers a close up view of the likes of Tony Bennett, Faith Hill, The Guess Who, Kiss or David Copperfield. Hey, Tracy Morgan and Gloria Gaynor are coming up in the weeks after icemaker Hans Wutrich's creation is unceremoniously shoveled away (it will be, by the way, almost immediately after the winner of the TSN Dominion Skins Game final is determined Sunday afternoon).

“It’ll be gone by noon on Monday," said ice technician Mike Bradley, of Cimco Refrigeration, the well-known ice plant operation in charge of creating the temporary sheet that Wutrich then babies and cajoles into curling lightning.

“When it’s all done, I’m kind of sad to see it disappear," said Bradley.

No wonder. Bradley and his crew from Cimco haven't left Rama since last Sunday night, when they began work on the floor's transformation. He figures that in that time they spent only a total of 8 hours all week not working on it.

Plastic on the floor begins the process. After that comes the painstaking task of laying more than a kilometre of pipe inside the framework of what will form the 16' x 150' sheet.

"They built it from scratch," said a seemingly amazed Wutrich. "It’s basically what you’d have at an older curling club where you have pipes and sand in the floor.”

With the sand being poured in around all the pipes to keep them in place, the water is next and the freezing begins.

That's where the hundred air conditioners and engine coolant come in.

“It’ basically like your air conditioner at home boosted up on steroids," said Bradley of the portable, yet exceptionally powerful unit stationed out in the parking lot next to the entertainment complex.

That unit pumps the lifeblood of the curling sheet - the coolant - underneath the ice on the Rama floor.

“Basically the same as what’s in your car, for cooling your engine," Bradley explained. "But, industrial grade."

"The ice is fantastic," Jeff Stoughton gushed. "You can make any shot," enthused Kevin Koe, as their afternoon semi-final hit the four-end break.

During the opening draw of the event, players were seeing nearly 6 feet of curl from the outside in. If it was too much of a swing, neither Stoughton nor Koe were complaining.

Their thumbs-up was music to the ears of Wutrich and Bradley, particularly considering play was underway within five days of the project beginning. The speed with which they needed to make it all happen put plenty of pressure on Bradley, Wutrich and the crew.

“This kind of ice usually takes about a week, week and a half in built-up, permanent curling facilities," said Bradley, as he swept his hand toward the ice behind us. "And we’ve done it in about three, three and a half days. That’s how quick it has to happen.”

If the conditions at a casino in Orillia, Ontario, are much less than perfect in January, how will they be in Las Vegas, one year from now? That's when Wutrich will be entrusted with giving the best curlers in the world some playable ice at the 2014 Continental Cup. At least with that, Wutrich will have the benefit of having an ice plant in place, at the 9,500 seat Orleans arena.

“It’ll be way easier," said Wutrich, when asked to compare the ice making job in Vegas as opposed to Rama. “There will be no problem making ice there whatsoever. None. It’s very dry in Vegas, they’ve got all the air conditioning you want. Tons and tons of it.”

That was the other amazing thing about how well the ice was performing, as Saturday night's action was unfolding. The weather in Orillia was unsettled, as rain was turning to snow. Unseasonably warm temperatures and a dose of humidity prevailed throughout most of the day.

"It's not built for events like this," observed Wutrich, explaining the challenges he faced in keeping the ice at the right temperature and without much frost building up on it. He and his cohorts had four airflow vents each pointed at a quarter of the surface. Part of the balancing act of optimum conditions consists of regulating their operation carefully.

That the ice was as good, if not better than it has ever been over the course of The Skins Game's 6 year run at Rama, Wutrich says, is testament to the work of the installers at Cimco. And a product of trial and error.

"We've had different ice plants over the years and these guys (at Cimco) have worked their butts off to get the best possible product we can get," he said.

Bradley, who's been a refrigeration mechanic for thirteen years and worked on all manner of installs (Cimco products cool the ice at 15 NHL arenas) still has a soft spot for the job done at Rama.

“It’s an interesting project," he said, proudly. "It’s very unique.”

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