The Niagara News is the community newspaper of Niagara College located in Welland and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. It is created and produced by the students of the Niagara College Journalism program.
For the next week, Curling Canada is taking over St. Catharine’s Meridian Centre from the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara Ice Dogs.
The Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Canada’s premier women’s competition, will need the smooth and flat ice converted into what is known as “pebbled” ice for everything to run perfectly.
“If there’s no pebble you wouldn’t be able to get the rock to the other end,” says Dave Merklinger, Curling Canada’s head ice technician for this year’s Scotties.
If anyone is an expert on ice, it’s Merklinger. The Vernon, BC resident has been pebbling ice since 1969. Merklinger has pebbled at every level of competitive curling, including one world cup in both men and women’s and one Olympic games.
“This could be 11 or 12 times. There’s a banner out in the rink that I have to add up all the years but I think it’s about 12,” says the technician, wondering how many times he’s done the ice for Scotties.
He’s is also no stranger of playing curling himself, representing Ontario (out of Ottawa)in the Tim Hortons Briar in 1985, hosted in Moncton, NB and a score of other tournaments.
“I have always been a competitive curler and that’s why I’m into this. Just the love for the game,” says Merklinger.
“I’ve been in all of them. I have always played in anything I could play in.”
It should be no surprise to anyone that he is the manager of the Vernon Curling Club when he’s not making ice for major competitions. At the Vernon club, he also makes ice. Merklinger has been there for nine years.
Ionized water is the key. The water needs to have a PH level of either five or six to find the perfect balance between the water being too high in alkaline or acidity.
The water is then put in a tank which looks just like an everyday gardening tank. An ice technician will walk across the ice sprinkling the water on the surface, forming thousands of frozen droplets that look like pebbles, hence the name.
“What we have is a pebble head. All the holes are on the top half, so there’s a whole bunch of holes, probably 64, drilled into this copper disc that holds water and gravity feeds it through the holes and makes a fan of water. It’s like water can in the garden,” says Merklinger.
The pebbles help the concave-bottomed rocks across the ice. The melting pebbles can also give a little extra push.
Pebbling makes it easier for curlers to push the rock across the ice. Without the pebbles, the rock may only reach a short distance before coming to a full stop due to the friction of flat ice.
“You’d have a very hard time even getting it the other end. That’s the purpose of the pebble, it’s just less friction,” says Merklinger.
The pebbles also allow the rock to spin as it glides across the ice. Sweepers (the players with brooms) will use their brooms to brush the pebbles, changing the direction of the rock as it speeds up the melting process, limiting friction.
The strategy of the teams playing depends on the state of the pebbles. Because of the decay of the pebbles, the rink needs to be cleaned using a scrapper and then re-pebbled before every game.
If the pebbling process isn’t done right, it can make for a bad showing.
“You’re making ice for all the spectators; you’re making ice for the millions of people watching it. If the one thing they are playing on goes south it can make you look pretty bad,” says Merklinger.