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At Enterprise Center, keeping the Blues' ice nice is a huge job

At Enterprise Center, keeping the Blues' ice nice is a huge job

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It’s 7:15 in the morning on Monday, Dec. 16, and Jim Schmuke is drilling holes in the ice at Enterprise Center.

Schmuke, the head ice technician there, is not going fishing. His job at this moment is to check how deep the ice is at various points.

He starts at the top of one crease, poking his drill into the ice until he hits the cement beneath it, and then moves to various spots around the rink. Each time, he marks the ice level on the bit, measures it on the ruler attached to his clipboard, and enters it on a sheet of paper that will be sent to the NHL. In most cases, the ice is 1¼ inches thick, though on this day, in front of the penalty boxes, it’s only about an inch thick. But that’s up from the seven-eighths of an inch it had been a few days before.

That’s the first step in a day in the life of the Enterprise ice, and Schmuke and his crew will spend the next 15 hours getting and keeping the Blues’ playing surface ready to go. What are used is a collection of tools both highly specialized and improvised.

There is the Olympia ice resurfacing machine and an edger that scrapes the ice along the boards that the Olympia can’t reach. There there is the turkey baster used to take water out of the holes where the pegs for the net go, and the bubble gum remover used to provide a quick freeze for on-ice repairs.

“We want to do the best job we can and feel we do the best job we can,” said Schmuke, who has been with the Blues for 40 years.

Weathering the storm

Schmuke is friends with Busch Stadium groundskeeper Bill Findley, two guys who know that the surfaces they tend to will be the canvas on which some of the city’s biggest sports moments will play out.

“We joke that we’d each like each other’s job,” Schmuke said.

Both have to fight the elements. Schmuke’s perfect day is humidity below 40 percent and temperatures in the low 60s.

“One game in the playoffs, I think it got up to 70,” Schmuke said. “There’s only so much you can do if you’re playing in June. But that’s what Billy and I talk about. Weather contributes to both of our problems really. We don’t have a 10-day homestand when it’s 90 degrees outside. Those guys do an amazing job there.”

Weather isn’t a problem on this day, as a winter storm rolls through, though ultimately, Dave Grimes, who drives the second Olympia during games is late getting to the rink because traffic has stopped on Interstate 55 because of an accident. While many people were staying off the roads that day, Grimes was on his way to a job in which he drives on ice.

Revving it up

At 7:26 a.m, Schmuke fires up one of Enterprise Center’s two Olympia ice resurfacing machines for the first time that day, to ready the ice for Sammy Blais and an early morning rehab skate. The Blues long have used Olympias to resurface the ice, choosing them over Zambonis, the other company that makes ice resurfacers.

To Schmuke, there’s no major difference between the two. The Blues just get a better deal on the Olympias than they do on Zambonis, so that’s what they use. The Blues lease the machines, so they get a new one about every three years. The current ones are two years old.

Before going out, Schmuke fills the machine’s 220-gallon tank of water — it’s St. Louis city water run through a purifier — plus a second smaller tank used for filling in deeper gouges. The Olympia, which runs on propane, moves at about 10 mph across the ice, though it’s a guess by Schmuke because the machines don’t have speedometers.

They also don’t have brakes. To slow them or stop them, the driver takes his foot off the gas pedal or uses a knob to adjust the number of rpms for the engine. They do, however, have a horn.

They also don’t have an odometer. Usage is measured by hours rather than miles (it would take about 26 trips from one end of the ice to the other to equal a mile), and by standards of other places, the Enterprise Olympias are pretty low mileage. If the Blues are out of town and the building is being used for something else, they might sit idle for a week. When Centene Community Ice Center needed help recently, the Blues sent them one of their machines. They put it on a truck, so you didn’t miss out on seeing it drive from downtown to Maryland Heights. When it came back, it had a lot more hours on it because the four rinks there are in much more constant use.

Over the course of a game day, the Olympia will make 10 to 12 trips onto the ice, with the higher number coming if the rink had been used for a non-hockey event the day before, because, well, those things can make a mess.

For concerts, wood panels cover the floor. If people spill a drink, that will find its way through the cracks between the boards and leave a grid pattern of frozen gunk. On days such as that, the crew will be out with squirt bottles to loosen the frozen chunks of beer and soda and who knows what else that have been encased in the ice.

As soon as Blais and trainer Ray Barile are off, the Olympia is back, doing a cut (where the top layer of ice comes off ) and a flood (where new water goes down).

“We try not to lay a lot of water in the morning unless we absolutely have to,” Schmuke said, “because it tends to make a little more snow the more water you lay out there. So we try not to until its needed to resurface.”

The process continues

That resurfacing will do until the Blues are done with their morning skate, which starts at 10:30 a.m. When the last Blue is off the ice, around 11:15, Schmuke is out again to get it ready for the Avalanche, who will hit the ice at 11:30. They’re off in 45 minutes, but there’s no rush this time. The cleaning crew needs to wash the glass, so the rink is theirs for a while.

At 1:30, Dave Staloch is out with the edger, walking slowly around the perimeter of the rink to remove built-up ice, and five minutes later Schmuke has the Olympia out again. (When not working on the ice, crew members such as Staloch work on other maintenance projects in the building. But the ice is the most fun. “It’s the greatest job in the world,” crew member Gil Spinks said.)

This is one of the big drives of the day, with both a cut and a flood, filling the front compartment of the Olympia with enough snow for what would seem to be a lifetime’s worth of snow cones. But considering where that snow has been, there are better options.

When he’s done, Schmuke pulls the Olympia in front of a large basin for gathering the snow, pushes a button, and the top of the Olympia flips up then tilts forward and dumps out a huge pile of snow.

Schmuke goes back out around 3 p.m. to put down another layer of water to keep the ice from, seriously, getting too cold. That’s because the water the Olympia puts down is hot — more than 100 degrees — and if the ice gets too cold it gets hard and brittle and is more likely to chip and crack.

Coolest ride in town

To a lot of people, Schmuke has the coolest ride in town. The Olympia is built on the frame of a Chevy Blazer, and Schmuke said it handles like a car. (It has studded tires for traction.) During some intermissions, fans get to ride along.

“I have a lot of people get on and say ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever done,’” Schmuke said as he wheeled the machine across the ice. “I was like, well? It’s a lot different when you get on there, when people get on and there’s crowds out there, sure, it’s pretty cool. To us, it’s nothing out of the ordinary.”

Ice technology has changed since Schmuke first started at The Arena in 1979. Much of the process is automated now. At any moment, Schmuke can pull out his phone and see what the temperature is on the bottom of the ice and at the top of the ice, thanks to infrared sensors that shoot down from the ceiling. Computer programs adjust the temperature accordingly.

(Side note: by running heat through the cooling coils, the ice can be melted in about six hours if needed.)

When Schmuke started, The Arena used off-duty St. Louis firemen to handle the changeover between events. Schmuke’s dad was a fireman who did that and helped his son get a part-time job, which he eventually turned into a full-time job. He’s been driving since 1988 and has been the head ice technician for five years.

The ice crew also is responsible for everything else surrounding putting on a hockey game, from lacing the nets onto the goals at the start of the season to hanging the safety nets above the glass that stop flying pucks, to fixing the glass and boards. They change the ads on the boards and paint the lines and lay the ads (which are on large pieces of mesh) at the start of the season. On a cart just off the ice sit the most common sizes of glass along the boards should an in-game repair be needed. And in a small area nearby sits at least one replacement for every size of glass in the rink.

Also during the day, Schmuke will check the temperature in two freezers, one in the visiting penalty box where pucks are stored during games and one in the Blues’ equipment room where they’re stored the rest of the time. (Yes, there’s a small freezer filled with nothing but hockey pucks.)

It’s showtime

After pregame warmups, Schmuke and Grimes do the final resurfacing, then watch the game from just off the ice in the Olympia tunnel, along with the Blue Crew, the skaters who go on the ice to remove snow during timeouts. Also on hand is the emergency medical crew.

Just over a minute into the game, Colorado’s Samuel Girard takes a puck to the mouth and goes down to the ice bleeding. It’s so early in the period that the Blue Crew members haven’t finished putting on their skates, and they scramble to get someone out there with a shovel to scrape the blood off the ice. If the incident had happened near the tunnel, someone in shoes could have gone out. But because it’s at the other end, Schmuke prefers to have someone on skates go out.

When the bloody snow comes back, it’s dumped in the large drain just off the ice. A Colorado television analyst in the tunnel wonders if there are any teeth in the snow. A security guard takes a flashlight and looks but doesn’t see anything.

One of the good things about an ice surface is that it’s easy to repair. Schmuke keeps a small bucket filled with slush produced from the Olympia and a hockey puck to use for repairs. If a player leaves a gouge in the ice, Schmuke or an official can just dump some of the slush in the hole, use the puck to smooth it and it’s good as new. This is where the gum remover can be used to flash freeze the ice and seal the repair.

During the TV timeouts, the Blue Crew has two minutes to scrape the accumulated snow off the ice, moving like a conga line, with each skater moving the snow closer to the boards and it then is shoveled to the tunnel gate. That’s where Schmuke and Grimes wield squeegees to get the last of it off the ice. Then in a nice bit of choreography, when the last crew member gets off the ice, Grimes swings the door shut and Schmuke locks it in place.

When the first period is over, the crew jumps into action. Even while the on-ice entertainment is going on, the edging already has begun and two crew members, Dave Lewis and Mike Mitchell, move the nets out of the way and tend to the holes for the pegs. They squirt in hot water to break up any ice buildups and suck it out with the baster. Then Schmuke and Grimes hit the ice with the Olympias.

Whenever the Olympias leave the surface, they leave a chunk of ice and a pool of water, so crew members again bring out the squeegees.

That process is repeated after the second period. Then late in the third, there’s a different task for the crew. The Blues’ David Perron completes a hat trick and hundreds of hats are thrown out on the surface. Grimes waves his hat, the signal to the crew to get out there. Soon everyone is on the ice, shoveling and scooping the hats into one of the garbage cans that also are used to remove snow during timeouts.

Winding down

Soon after the game is over the ice is empty again. Usually Mitchell will stay to make a couple more runs with the Olympia, but a component on the scoreboard has malfunctioned and the unit has to be lowered to ice level for repairs.

It’s close to 10 p.m. when Schmuke is leaving, ready to head home. It’s been a long day, but all has gone well. That’s his ice. His baby. He’s very protective of it.

“I’m going to take it personal,” he said of criticisms of his ice surface. “Winning the Stanley Cup, it’s a little bit more knowing how much work goes into taking care of the ice. It makes it all that much better. That was a very good feeling. That was fantastic.”

Photos: Blues ice crew at work

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