Hans Pauls, supervisor of the two Virgil arenas, is happy to see life returning to normal — sort of.
The arenas are open, and the ice is in and looking great, ready for the hockey players and skaters whose season came to an abrupt end last March. There will, of course, be many procedures in place to follow provincial and municipal guidelines, says Pauls, but at least there will be skaters of all ages on the ice, in both arenas, and spectators in the stands.
It’s a tradition for the ice to go in before the Labour Day long weekend, and for hockey to start on Tuesday after the weekend. There was some discussion of delaying the opening, but the decision was made to go ahead with guidelines to try to keep people safe during the pandemic, says Pauls.
“It is really good to see things going back to somewhat of a norm,” he adds, “obviously with some precautions.”
The NOTL Skating Club, minor hockey and adult leagues will all resume, he says, as he watches the last step of the ice preparation. The painting has just finished, and staff are putting the important sealing coats of water on it. “This to me is the most thrilling time, putting the ice in. We’ve been closed since last March and there has been nothing in this facility since then. There is so much on the go, with tennis, pickleball and other sports resuming. This is great to see the arenas ready to go,” says Pauls. “I look forward to seeing the community using the facility. I’ve watched some of these kids grow up. I’ve sharpened their skates, and have the scars to prove it. And now they’re playing in the old-timer leagues.”
But before anyone steps on to the ice, in skates, there is a complicated process that is followed every year, one Pauls describes as an art that is passed down by generations.
He says he learned from the best — Clive Buist, the town’s former director of parks and recreations, and facilities supervisor Ken Rive, both retired.
After 35 years on the job, Pauls is now supervisor, and passing his expertise on to younger men, some of whom remember him from his skate-sharpening days.
Pauls learned the art more than 30 years ago, and after years of the gruelling, back-breaking, labour intensive work, he is happy to supervise the next generation.
“The staff have been trained to do it, and they do a great job,” he says. “We’re one of the few who do it ourselves. Most arenas contract it out.”
Staff are certified in ice-making and painting technologies through the Ontario Recreation Facilities Association, says Pauls, but also learn through experience.
They begin with a thin ice surface on concrete, which is then painted white and the coloured lines and circles added.
The painting is done by hand, with wood patterns on the ice to use as guides. Some of it is done with a brush on the end of a broom stick, and some of it, brush in hand with a pail of paint, kneeling down or bending over to ensure perfect, brightly-coloured markings on the ice. “The paint freezes instantly,” says Pauls. “If you make a mistake, you have to scrape it off.”
Jeremy Warner is one of the staff members Pauls can remember coming to the arena as a youngster, to play hockey. Pauls used to sharpen Warner’s skates, and now he’s playing with the old timers. “I used to flood the rink when I was his age. Now he floods it.”
“It’s a tough job,” says Warner of the painting. “It’s hard on your back and legs.”
Warner has been working for the Town for 14 years in the operations department, on parks maintenance in the summer, and arena maintenance in the winter, which includes driving the Olympus ice cleaner.
As painstaking as it is to get the ice in and painted, the staff started early Friday and were finished both arenas by about noon Friday, Pauls says. Once the painting was finished, more water was sprayed to seal the ice, using hot water — 160 degrees F — which contains less dissolved oxygen, or air bubbles, which makes the ice harder, smoother and more clear, also protecting the paint. They spray until the ice is one and a half inches thick.
After that, it’s shaved regularly, using a laser to make sure it’s flat and even, to prevent ice from building up, which dulls the colour, and is also not as efficient to keep frozen, he says. The ice is maintained at about 21 degrees F, with a variable of about 2 degrees.
Maybe half way through the season, or before a tournament, it will be repainted, to brighten it, “but we don’t know yet what’s happening as far as tournaments.”
This year, he’s particularly proud of the white, bright ice, which looks better than ever with new LED lighting that has replaced the traditional arena metal halide lights. The new lighting not only looks better and brighter, says Pauls, but is also more energy-efficient.
Plans were still underway to allow for physical distancing, Pauls says.
Tables, chairs and benches inside the arena were being moved, and the stands divided into three sections. Spectators will be directed to one section, and when they leave, the next group will be seated in a different area, giving staff time to clean in between.
Outside doors will be kept locked, open only for arriving skaters and spectators 15 minutes before and after arrival times, with separate doors for entering and exiting.
Masks must be worn in the building, although skaters can remove them when they’re on the ice. Dressing rooms will be open, with frequent cleaning.
New user groups interested in renting ice this season are asked to complete an online survey identifying the dates and times of desired ice rentals. Visit the Town’s website for additional information regarding reopening procedures, arena schedule and public skating times.
There will be changes, Pauls says, but at least the doors will be open, and, according to tradition, the arenas are ready to welcome those who are anxious to tie up their skates and step on the ice.