The Cutting-Edge Team at Columbia Ice Rink
Opening week at the Columbia Ice Rink kicked off with some brrr-illiant news: Our Learn to Skate program was named #1 in the state, and #11 in the Eastern United States!
As a facility that spreads its time out between hockey, figure skating, school groups and offering the most public skating sessions in the area per week, exceptional programming is just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s a glimpse into how the Ice Rink crew goes above and beyond to serve the entire community each and every day.
The art of the ice
Closing and reopening the Ice Rink for the summer is a huge lift for the team. This is done to keep the refrigeration system, which is found underneath the floor of the rink, in prime condition. Summer is the perfect time to let the system rest, since it would have to work extra hard to combat the humidity outside and keep the ice frozen.
Each June, the CA team shaves off as much ice as possible with the Zamboni. When it starts to melt, they work in rotating shifts for four days straight to dispose of all the ice in a snow pit, which is then drained.
In August, when the chillers are turned back on, it’s another all-team effort to get ready to welcome back the community.
“To make the ice, we borrow a turf sprayer from the CA golf team and use it to spray a very, very thin mist of water,” explains Tom Connors, Columbia Ice Rink general manager. “We drive around in circles to let it freeze in layers, building up a millimeter at a time. This method creates a nice strong ice that won’t shatter.”
Once the ice is one-tenth of an inch thick, it’s painting time. The CA team hand-paints the entire sheet of ice white before drawing the more intricate lines and face-off circles.
The “paint” is actually a non-toxic chalk, a more environmentally-friendly option than your average paint. The decorated areas receive several mists of water to seal them. Then there’s all the behind-the-scenes work that the community doesn’t necessarily see, from spray painting the skating aids to replacing the hockey nets.
When the Ice Rink is back up and running, ice temperatures have to be adjusted for each activity that takes place. Maintaining the ice is a 24/7 effort for CA’s small but mighty team, but it’s one they have down to a science.
“For hockey, the ice has to be harder to withstand the extra pressure of sharp turns and drills, so we keep it at 18 to 19 degrees,” shares Andrea Burke, Columbia Ice Rink manager. “Figure skaters need the ice a little softer to land their jumps and spins safely, so it’s important to keep it a couple degrees warmer.”
With various daily programs and 14 public skating sessions per week — and factors like humidity and air temperature directly affecting the ice — it’s a round-the-clock balancing act to keep the ice in pristine shape for the community.
“Every day, our team is out there measuring the depth of the ice at different spots to make sure it’s nice and level,” says Tom. “Guests always say that our ice is the best, so it’s really rewarding to hear that our efforts are paying off.”
“It’s like a family”
If you’ve ever visited the Ice Rink, you’ve likely met Big Red and Big Blue (also known as Bubba Blue), our resident Zambonis. Even more incredible than these machines are the CA team members behind them.
While there’s only one female Zamboni driver in the entire NHL, there are five women behind the wheel at the Columbia Ice Rink. Resurfacing the ice into a flawless sheet after a figure skating or hockey game with the Zamboni takes an extreme amount of time, patience and skill.
“The Zam is a square box in a circle, so it’s not easy. We have to maintain the same speed we started with, and there’s no braking,” says Andrea. “About twice a week, we also use a smaller machine called the edger to reach the edges of the rink, which is like pushing a lawn mower on an ice surface. Then every few weeks, we change the Zamboni blade, a two-person job that takes about 45 minutes and lots of focus.”
Andrea joined the Ice Rink team in 2013 with no previous experience — just a love for the welcoming facility where her daughter discovered a passion for ice skating.
“Ever since learning all the minutiae of maintaining the ice, I’ve been captivated. It’s amazing to work in such a family-oriented place where people are here because they love it,” she says. “It’s not what I planned to do, but it’s like a dream job for me and I feel blessed to be part of such a great community.”
Jon Franklin, who has been a familiar face on the Ice Rink team since 1996 and formerly played on the Washington Ice Dogs hockey team, agrees.
“It’s like a family,” he says. “I love getting to greet members who I’ve seen come into the Ice Rink for more than 20 years.”
A welcoming space for the community
According to Tom, his mission as General Manager is to ensure that the Columbia Ice Rink isn’t just an ice skating rink or a hockey rink — it’s a “community rink” that is accessible to everyone.
That’s why he’s intentional about lowering barriers in any way he can. Field trips to the Ice Rink are 100% free for Columbia public schools, and skating aids are also available for free for anyone who wishes to use one. And where else can you get a hot dog for just $2 at the snack bar?
Enhancing accessibility has personal meaning for Tom. Growing up in the projects, he was unable to afford hockey lessons and discovered his love for the game at age 16, when a teacher lent him goalie equipment. That’s why he’s passionate about allowing kids who participate in instructional hockey at the Ice Rink to borrow equipment free of charge.
“If there was a program like this in my community, maybe I would have started playing hockey sooner,” says Tom. “Families are welcome to keep the equipment for the entire season. That way, they don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on equipment when their kids are trying out the sport.”
Want to experience the magic of the Columbia Ice Rink yourself? We’d love to see you! Learn more on our website.