Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chris Clark, the Washington Capitals‘ captain, called it the worst ice in the league last season. On Saturday night, defenseman Tom Poti said the puck resembled a “bouncy ball” when playing on it.

Verizon Center‘s ice surface has had its fair share of critics, but explanations and solutions have proved hard to come by. For more than a year, fans, players and even team owner Ted Leonsis have questioned the quality of ice at the downtown arena - with varying levels of frustration and dismay.

Saturday’s game against the Florida Panthers - a 3-1 Caps victory - reignited the conversation.

“The ice was disgusting,” Poti said after the game. “Every game here, it is an embarrassment. That’s why so many guys get hurt with groins. It’s a shame, to be honest with you.”

And while coach Bruce Boudreau and defenseman Mike Green said the ice wasn’t particularly worse than other games, the subject of ice conditions was a touchy subject Monday at practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

Poti said he wasn’t going to talk about the ice anymore since he “said his piece” about the subject already. Sergei Fedorov said he didn’t feel comfortable talking about the playing conditions because he and his teammates were told not to discuss it.

“We just had a meeting. We’re not really allowed to comment… because we don’t wanna say something that will cause a problem,” he said. “We know for sure people who work and try to make ice better are working very, very hard, so let’s keep it that way.”

Leonsis and general manager George McPhee declined comment through a team spokesman.

Saturday was the second of three times this season that the Caps were scheduled to play at night after a basketball game in the afternoon. This situation was especially unfavorable; the Wizards played Friday night, and Georgetown’s overtime loss to Cincinnati wrapped up about four hours before the Caps and Panthers took the ice for pregame warmups.

And while Florida coach Peter DeBoer said the bad ice represented an advantage for his team, Boudreau noted the conditions weren’t abnormally bad.

“You know what? I thought the ice has been fine. I really do,” he said. “It’s a lot better than it’s been in the past, and we know they’re working real hard to try to get it really good. I think it’s been really good for us this year.”

Dan Craig, facilities operations manager for the NHL, has become a prominent figure in hockey circles; he helped put together the rinks for the Winter Classic outdoor games. Craig, who visited the District earlier in the season to check on the ice as part of a routine visit, said the league has been monitoring Verizon Center’s playing conditions.

There are several different ways an ice surface can be unfavorable for players. For the most part, complaints arise when ice is choppy, leading to players’ skates catching grooves in the ice and the puck not gliding smoothly.

Many elements can hamper the quality of a rink, including building temperature, pH balance and, of course, quick changeovers from sport to sport.

“You can get one or two parameters out of whack, and you’re not going to have your best game,” he said. “What we do is really try to tweak the systems as much as we can. It’s a multiuse facility, and in operations we try to accommodate as many events as physically possible. … To try to keep a building under 60 to 65 degrees is a tough, tough challenge.”

Craig was not at Verizon Center on Saturday but said the building’s readings showed the temperature at 62 degrees and the humidity at 37 percent - close to the league’s ideal setting of 60 degrees and 40 percent. Players and on-ice officials fill out postgame surveys as part of the league’s way to track and rank its ice surfaces. Those surveys aren’t public, but Saturday’s ice certainly got mixed reviews.

Leonsis did not speak with reporters about the ice conditions, but he did post an entry on his blog, Ted’s Take, on Sunday voicing his concern.

“We are truly working these matters. We are very detailed about what we need to do as to temperature, timing, humidity and the like,” he wrote. “We are on it as a building. We are looking at issues such as the building scheduling basketball games on our afternoons. … And while the building tries to schedule their games before Wizards games, coordinating NHL, NBA and NCAA is an art, not a science.”

Fedorov said he didn’t notice anything unusual against the Panthers, adding that he and other players adjust when conditions aren’t favorable.

“I don’t wanna be the bad guy. I don’t wanna say too much because I don’t know where we stand on that… especially at Verizon,” Fedorov said. “It’s been fair conditions, but I don’t know what else to say because I don’t wanna sound off on that.”

Matt Williams, the executive vice president for Washington Sports and Entertainment, which manages Verizon Center, said the building has been within the NHL’s guidelines most of the season. Given the crowds and unseasonable warmth - the temperature reached a high of 58 degrees - he called it the “perfect storm” for poor conditions.

“Really, the only times we’re going to struggle to have good ice is these tough turnarounds,” Williams said. “If you can avoid having a basketball-to-hockey switch, then you try to do that. That really almost kinda shakes out as the luck of the draw.”

But Saturday night wasn’t the first time the subject has been broached. A few weeks ago, Clark echoed his sentiment that Verizon Center’s ice the worst in the NHL. There were discussions about the ice surface last year and earlier this season as the team’s injury woes intensified.

“It could possibly [lead to injuries]. But I, personally, haven’t had an injury from just skating or the ice surface,” said Green, who said playing conditions are a regular topic of conversation in the dressing room. “It can cause you to get frustrated or whatnot and maybe get you off your game. “

Williams said the Caps inform Verizon Center officials when they are not satisfied with the ice conditions. Every building (and every game situation) provides a different set of circumstances, but Craig pointed to a basic idea for how to solve ice problems.

“In Refrigeration 101, it’s very simple: You remove heat,” he said. “That is a very big challenge in any multiuse facility.”

Williams said the number of events held at Verizon Center makes it impossible to always have perfect ice, adding “it’s the nature of the beast.”

Said Green: “It’s not gonna be good every night; we can’t expect it to be. There’s two teams. Both teams are playing on the same ice surface.”

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