GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – Joe Meierhofer arrived in Korea in early January to make ice. Not just any ice, but Olympic ice, which in his words must be “perfect ice.”
Meierhofer, a Sauk Rapids resident, is among a group of Minnesota ice technicians who were chosen to be part of teams that maintain ice surfaces at Olympic skating venues. Three of them were assigned to the two hockey arenas. Meierhofer and Anoka’s Bob Erickson work at the Gangneung Ice Arena, which is home to figure skating and short-track speedskating.
Olympic organizers wanted experts in ice making so they outsourced those jobs. The Minnesotans were selected based on their experience and connections within their profession. Back home, they handle ice operations at various arenas, including Xcel Energy Center, Mariucci Arena and the National Sports Center.
They are veterans of making and maintaining ice surfaces, otherwise known as Zamboni drivers, except the job encompasses so much more than that. They also regulate ice temperatures, monitor ice thickness and handle equipment repair.
No assignment requires as much care as making sure Olympics athletes have impeccable ice conditions.
“We don’t want to be on the news for something bad,” said Adam Stirn, ice operations manager at Mariucci Arena who is working at the main hockey arena here.
Meierhofer arrived a month before the Olympics began to make ice sheets for three different rinks — one for figure skating/short track, a practice rink in the basement and a short-track practice rink at a nearby college. Each ice sheet took a week to make.
Maintaining ice to highest standards requires precision and long hours, especially for Meierhofer and Erickson, who face unusual challenges in preparing ice for figure skating and short track on the same sheet.
They are part of a 14-member crew that includes ice makers from the U.S., Japan, Korea and France.
Ice for figure skating must be thicker and warmer than standard hockey ice because of all the jumping and landing.
Their ice needs to be 3 to 4 degrees warmer than short track, and anywhere from ¼ to ½-inch thicker.
“That’s why you have to do figure skating in the morning,” Meierhofer said.
Once a figure skating event ends, the team prepares the ice for short-track speedskating races at night. They cool down the ice, shave some off with the Zamboni blade and make sure there are no problem areas. The process takes several hours.
The ice loses considerable thickness during a short-track event so the team works late into the night rebuilding the ice so that it’s ready for figure skating again in the morning.
A typical shift for Erickson starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 1 a.m. One night his crew used nearly 3,000 gallons of water to build the ice back up after short track. They often use four Zambonis at one time, rather than two.
This is Erickson’s first time preparing ice for figure skating.
“I had all the theories but putting it in place and seeing how this goes is pretty cool,” he said.
He’s not out for a leisurely drive on his Zamboni. Resurfacing between events is a four-man operation that includes a chief ice technician who quarterbacks the process. He relays how much water he wants poured or ice shaved off through a headset to Meierhofer, who transmits it to the headsets of Erickson and the other Zamboni driver.
The Zambonis must be synchronized so that their resurfacing is uniform.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Erickson said.
Athletes who wear skates for a living are incredibly particular about ice conditions. And they’re not afraid to share their thoughts when ice is not up to par, which makes the Olympics a big stage for the people who tend to the ice, too.
So far, the Minnesotans have heard nothing but positive reviews.
“That makes the long days all worth it when you hear a compliment from the athletes,” Erickson said.
Meierhofer said he held his breath the first day athletes tested the ice.
“That is our biggest fear coming into this, that we wouldn’t make perfect ice for the Olympics,” he said. “The athletes love the surface that we’re making for them.”
That’s the same feedback Stirn, Ryan Hevern of the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine and Dave Hanson of Burnsville Ice Center received at the hockey arena.
“We haven’t heard a [negative] word,” Stirn said. “That means you’re doing it right.”
Those three are part of a 10-person team that alternates shifts. Their work doesn’t require as much reconfiguring as the ice at figure skating, but it’s similarly stressful.
The crew constantly monitors ice thickness and temperature because the ice takes a beating during a game.
Subpar ice can have a negative impact on a game, which would be a major embarrassment in the Olympics.
“You can feel [the pressure], especially as we start to get into the medal rounds now,” Stirn said. “It needs to be perfect. All the eyes are on us.”
And while the Minnesota ice makers have earned high marks, they were careful not to take any victory laps.
“We have five days to go,” Meierhofer said. “So we’re not done yet.”