The Science of Ice and Hockey

Did you ever wonder about hockey ice, what is it, and how do they make it?

For hockey, temperature of the ice makes a big difference!  Players often use the terms "fast ice" and "slow ice."  What does that mean?  Fast ice is harder and colder with a smooth, slippery surface.  Slow ice is softer and may have a rough surface.

Figure skaters might prefer warmer ice, which is more resilient for jumps and landings, but hockey players like it colder, so they can move really fast.  By really fast I mean 20-30 mph. driving a puck going over 100 mph!

In "The Science of Hockey " on, Professor Gabor Somorjai of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory explains  the nature of ice.  He has discovered that ice has a "quasi-fluid " or "water-like" top layer  composed of vibrating water molecules. These molecules behave like a liquid, but they only move up and down; if they also moved from side to side , it would be melted water on top of the ice.  This quasi-fluid layer coats the surface and makes it slippery.

The colder the ice, the more slippery and fast the surface is. So, how do they make this ideal surface?

The technology behind indoor ice rinks is the same as refrigerators and air conditioners.  The main difference  is that the refrigerant they use doesn't cool the ice directly.  Brinewater  is pumped through a system of pipes underneath the ice.  In most rinks, the pipes are embedded in a concrete or sand base.  For a more complete explanation, see this excellent  article  by Melissa Russell-Ausley, writing for

Making the surface of a hockey rink is both an art and a science. It's a rather complicated process, using 12,000--15,000 gallons of water. The purity of the water matters, too.  Ice made with water that contains dissolved alkaline salts may have a sticky feel to it and will dull skate blades. To counteract these problems, many rinks use water purifiers.  The water must be applied in stages, in order to form the  ideal thickness.  Here's how they do it---

  1. The ice crew sprays the first two layers on using a paint truck.  This creates a fine mist of water to form the first two layers, each only 1/30 of an inch thick. The first layer freezes almost immediately after it is sprayed on.
  2. Once the first layer is frozen, the crew sprays on the second layer.
  3. The crew paints the frozen second layer white with the paint truck, allowing for a strong contrast between the black hockey puck and the ice.
  4. The crew then sprays on the third layer. This layer, which is only one-sixteenth of an inch thick, acts as a sealer for the white paint.  The crew paints the hockey markings (the lines, creases, face-off spots and circles) and team and sponsor logos on top of this third layer.
  5. Once the markings and logos dry, the crew gradually applies the final layers.
  6. Each layer is allowed to dry before the next layer is applied. The thinner the layers, the smoother the ice. The total thickness of the ice rink is about 1 inch.

After the  skating surface is built,  it stays in place for the hockey season.  Maintaining the surface is the job of the Zamboni.

The  Zamboni was invented in the early 1940's by Frank Zamboni when he and his brother Lawrence needed a more efficient way to resurface their large ice rink, "Iceland."  Before his remarkable invention, people would have to drag a scraper behind a tractor to smooth the surface and then coat the ice with a thin layer of water to even things out again. This process was both labor-intensive and time-consuming.

The  Zamboni is a mechanical ice resurfacer.  It works by scraping the ice surface and collecting the snow. Then, it  flushes the grooves in the ice, clearing any dirt or debris.  Finally, the Zamboni puts down a thin layer of heated water--about 140-145 degrees Fahrenheit--the hotter the water, the smoother the surface.

There you have it. Now, are you ready for some hockey?

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Filed under: weather

Tags: fast ice, hockey, Zamboni


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