This is the fifth of eight entries in a Yahoo Sports series on the toughest jobs in sports. Click here to check out previous stories and a schedule for what's to come.
When the Arizona Coyotes hired Canada native J.J. Straker as their ice maker last summer, the new job inspired more than just the usual congratulatory hugs and handshakes from his friends and family.
"There was a lot of excitement because people knew hockey's my passion, but they would ask, 'How are you going to do that there?'" Straker recalled with a chuckle. "Making ice in Arizona? It doesn't seem like that will work."
Cultivating a perfect sheet of ice is a challenge anywhere, but it's an especially difficult job in the National Hockey League's hottest city. The average annual high in the sun-baked Phoenix-Glendale area is more than 86 degrees and temperatures routinely soar past 100 by the start of the playoffs in late April, making it tougher for Straker to produce ice of the proper thickness and consistency than it is for peers who work in cooler climates.
Since the max recommended temperature to produce good ice is about 62 degrees, Straker cools Jobing.com Arena to about 55 degrees on game days in preparation for the swell of heat whenever a flood of fans enters the building. He also accounts for Arizona's arid climate by humidifying the venue enough for the dew point to reach the NHL-recommended 35 degrees.
Straker's job is far from done even after the puck drops. He splits his time during home games between studying how smoothly the puck is sliding across the ice and monitoring a climate gauge app on his phone, tweaking or adjusting the surface temperature of the ice and the air conditioning and humidity inside the building as needed.
To make Straker's job a bit easier, the Coyotes take special precautions that help ensure the ice remains insulated from the heat. Deliveries only come during a brief window at night when temperatures are the lowest. The loading dock door closes in five seconds or less to make sure as little cold air escapes as possible. And security guards are instructed to shut the doors at entrances whenever there's the slightest lull in the rush of fans clamoring to get inside.
Los Angeles Kings ice technician Jim Hanlon, who has previously held the same position in Phoenix, Florida and Atlanta, said he found maintaining an ideal playing surface most difficult during his stint with the Coyotes. When temperatures soared as high as 109 degrees on game days during the 2012 Western Conference Finals between the Coyotes and Kings, Hanlon went so far as to increase the static pressure in the arena in order to force the cool air out when the doors were open rather than sucking in the heat from outside.
"Of the cities I worked in, Phoenix was the worst because it was the hottest," Hanlon said. "Florida might have been just as hard because of the humidity if they had played deeper into May or June, but, no disrespect to them, they didn't consistently make the playoffs. In Phoenix, because you had 19,000 people in the building and it got up to 120 degrees outside, it was just difficult. Hockey is the only sport where you resurface the playing surface during the game itself, so you take every precaution to make sure you're doing a good job."
Straker would not reveal how much it costs the Coyotes to maintain NHL-caliber ice in a hockey-adverse climate, but estimates from around the league suggest refrigeration is a significant investment. Hot-weather teams can spend as much as $2 million dollars per season on electricity bills alone and more than $200,000 per month during warmest times of the year.
That teams are willing to shell out that kind of money highlights the lengths they will go for high-quality ice.
No other playing surface is so complex to maintain or so integral to its sport. Not only can one bad bounce of the puck can be the difference between victory and defeat in hockey, choppy or slushy ice can also bog down slick-passing, deft-skating attacking players and give an advantage to more physical, defensive-oriented teams.
One of the most egregious examples of bad ice impacting a game occurred in the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals when the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Philadelphia Flyers on a steamy, humid night in late May. By the third period, thick fog rose from the surface of the ice, obscuring players and the puck and forcing referees to stop the game five times during regulation and seven more in overtime while rink workers skated feverishly holding bedsheets to try to get the fog to disperse.
Improved technology and more powerful air conditioning and refrigeration units have helped prevent similar incidents in recent years, but poor ice conditions still hinder players from time to time. Left winger Greg Adams, who played for five teams during a 17-year NHL career, recalls his 1994 Vancouver team surviving a playoff series against the Stars despite ice so slushy in steamy Dallas that the skilled players on both sides initially were unable to make much impact.
"With the heat and humidity, the ice was completely different from what we were used to playing on," Adams said. "I remember the first period was really hard. The ice was so soft it felt like you were skating in quicksand."
One reason such incidents are less common these days is because the NHL has made a renewed commitment in recent years to ensuring its games take place on world-class ice.
Having set the benchmark for ice-making while working for the Edmonton Oilers during the Wayne Gretzky era, Dan Craig was hired by the NHL to serve as a league-wide ice guru in 1997. His hiring represented tacit acknowledgement from the NHL that the league had an ice problem that required fixing.
Some of the first changes Craig made was to open up dialogue among ice technicians across the NHL, to make offseason education available to them and to implement league-wide standards for the temperature and thickness of the ice and the temperature and humidity in the building. Craig also sought to improve playing conditions by shortening pregame warmups, allowing only starters on the ice before the beginning of the second and third periods and prohibiting lengthy on-ice promotions before games or between periods.
Though it can still be a nightmare for ice makers when their arena hosts NBA games, concerts or ice shows between games, current and former players agree that playing conditions have improved during the course of Craig's tenure.
"All around, the league's gotten better," said Cliff Ronning, a former standout center in the NHL from 1987 to 2004. "Obviously you can still miscalculate how many people are going to be in the building or how hot it's going to be and make a mess of it, but the teams in warmer climates take a lot more pride in trying to get the ice as good as it can be. I think there has been a huge improvement."
Though the most experienced ice gurus in the biggest NHL markets can make nearly six figures annually, most of the people who hold those jobs didn't take them to get rich. Instead they work as ice technicians because they're passionate about hockey and this job represents a way to stay involved in the game even after their playing careers have long since fizzled out.
An Alberta native who started skating at age three and started playing hockey soon afterward, Straker dreamed of an NHL career as a kid but came to the realization he wasn't talented enough by the time he finished middle school. By college, Straker had already begun seeking out other ways to stay involved in the sport besides playing, a search that led him to take a recreational facility management course at Lethbridge Community College in Alberta.
That course encouraged Straker to begin gradually working his way through a series of jobs at small venues in Alberta and British Columbia, from scrubbing toilets as a janitor, to driving Zamboni's, to arena management. His big break eventually came during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics when he volunteered to serve as a Zamboni driver and ended up doing such a good job he worked the entire medal round and earned a recommendation from Craig at the end of the two-week event.
Straker eventually parlayed that into his first NHL gig as an ice technician with the Coyotes in August 2013. It's a challenging place to work for a Canadian ice specialist unaccustomed to a desert climate.
"I probably downplay how hard it is quite a bit because it can be really hard," Straker said. "There's no doubt about that. The state-of-the-art technology helps a lot, but Phoenix is not like in cold-weather cities where if you make a mistake, you can just open the doors to solve it. You have to stay on top of it and control the environment a lot more."
So does Straker have any regrets about leaving his home nation to come attempt to make clean sheets of ice in sun-scorched Phoenix? Not even close. He chuckles at the very idea, in fact.
"My passion for hockey alone, it makes it pretty incredible to be one of 30 people in the world who does what I do," Straker said. "Yes, it's hard, but I love it. I love every second of every day."
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- Sports & Recreation
- Ice Hockey
- Arizona Coyotes