December 10, 2008

The Future Of Hockey - Plastic, Not Ice?

Here's an interesting story from CBC News:

One Quebec city is considering giving up on one of the icons of Canadian winter, the outdoor ice rink, and replacing it with plastic.

That is certainly one way with dealing with global warming's messing with the Canadian game. It is becoming increasingly rare to find communities in this country that provide young players with free and abundant natural ice to hone their games.

Pond hockey increasingly rare
If you ask players of the Original Six glory days, the 1970s and even the 1980s, so many of them will tell you that the game's creativity was born on the frozen ponds, lakes, rivers and backyard rinks. It is in these games of impromptu shinny that players are not only free experiment with the puck and the game, but fall in love with hockey. Not to mention have the most fun.

Well those days are increasingly past for most Canadians. And while it is hardly the most pressing concern of environmental science, I've often wondered how global warming might impact hockey at all levels, including the NHL.

But the game at it's utmost grassroots level might yet be saved, thanks to an American plastics company.

The CBC article fails to mention the name of the company providing synthetic ice. It very well might be Viking Ice, with Synthetic Ice USA and KwikRink also major players.

What exactly is synthetic ice?
Wikipedia says "special polymer materials have been specifically engineered for skating, and unique lubricants designed designed to work with the polymer and be absorbed by it so that the surface never feels sticky and does not attract contaminants while providing an ice-like glide."

How much does it cost?
In 2005 RecordNet.com reported that the city of Portland, Oregon paid Viking Ice "$53,318 for 320 laminated panels of faux ice, estimating the city could initially save more than $300,000 over a genuine sheet of ice and countless dollars more in maintenance."

The synthetic ice could be used year round, requires little maintenance, is more consistent, is cost effective, and is fully recyclable.

This is not exactly new
Looking through the Viking Ice website suggests this is nothing new, as they have sales reps throughout America, Canada, Australia, the Middle East, Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland and Korea. Their most famous rinks can be found in Las Vegas and Dubai.

In fact, it is nothing new. Bryan Trottier and Phil Esposito got quite involved in the synthetic ice game back in the 1980s, championing it as a practice alternative for summer hockey and climates where ice is not normally found.

I remember an article in Hockey Digest, I believe, where Trottier claimed the synthetic ice slowed down a skater, forcing him or her to work his or her skating muscles harder. When returning to ice the improvement in skating speed and strength was noticeable.

A Future of Plastic Hockey?
I think we are a long ways away from seeing NHL players on such surfaces, or even more than a few plastic rinks for competitive youth hockey.

But I can see interest growing in synthetic ice surfaces. For cities across Canada and traditional cold parts of the USA that are wanting to keep the pond hockey tradition alive, installing such playing surfaces in city parks and tennis courts are an interesting way of doing so.

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