ANAHEIM — Kevin Starkey thinks about ice--really thinks about it.
Most people don't care about ice. Most people can't even remember to fill the ice cube trays at home. But Starkey is ice-obsessed. Maybe the reason is that mini-iceberg in the middle of his office.
"I know a little bit about a lot of things," says Starkey, a 38-year-old ex-jock who recently landed a very strange and stressful job. "But I know a lot about ice."
As operations manager of the Pond of Anaheim, Starkey is the man responsible for "solving" the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim's playing surface, notorious around the National Hockey League as perhaps the slowest, slushiest, sloppiest of them all.
Baseball groundskeepers win constant encomiums for their neatly clipped fields and caramel-smooth base paths. Football gridirons please the eye with their precise crosshatchings, like oversized green rulers.
But few people ever think about the Kevin Starkeys of the world--those icemen who cometh, and goeth, in frosty silence.
Tonight, Starkey gets a major job performance review when the Ducks face the Philadelphia Flyers in the season home opener. Studying the players' faces for frowns and sneers, watching to see if the puck floats or skitters, gazing at the ice like a painter at a perpetually melting canvas, Starkey will know at once if months of hard work have paid off.
Should he fail, it won't be for lack of effort. Or funds.
This summer, Starkey spent sacks of team owner Walt Disney Co.'s money (he won't say exactly how much) on the latest climate-control gizmos and air-conditioning gadgets, all in a desperate effort to give the Pond a more wintry finish.
"I don't know if we'll ever get it perfect," he says, acknowledging the constraints caused by the building, which was not designed exclusively for hockey, and by Orange County, which was not designed at all for hockey. "We just want it where the players like it."
And players have loathed it.
"It's probably gotten worse," says Duck forward Joe Sacco, a charter member of the team, asked to rate the ice since 1993, the team's inaugural year. "There's not much you can do. I don't think it's the people working on it. It's the way the building is."
The task would seem simple enough: Fill a rink with water, then freeze it good and hard. But ice is like Southern California's demographically diverse neighborhoods: each block is different.
With some emotion, and a little awe, Starkey describes the obtuse concepts, brain-cracking math and atmospheric fakery involved in freezing 14,000 gallons of purified water into a clear sheet 1 1/16-inch thick, then keeping it solid while 17,164 humidity-emitting humans breathe on it.
"It's a fine science," he says.
So far, the science hasn't worked well, and players have complained bitterly. One Detroit Red Wings star said skating here felt like dragging a house behind him. Teemu Selanne, the Ducks' great scorer, called Anaheim's ice, simply, "the worst."
"Worst ice in the NHL," Starkey says, grimacing--and nodding. "We have that reputation. Some people harp on that. But we want people to know we're trying."
You can see the trying. You can see the grooves forming around Starkey's eyes when he discusses grooves in his ice. And make no mistake--it is his ice. "That's my sheet out there," he says, stomping one of his big cowboy boots beside one of his big Zambonis, the minibus-sized machines that remove grooves between periods.
Ice is everything to Starkey, who came to Anaheim from the Forum in Inglewood, where he was operations supervisor. Shortly before last season, the Ducks handed their ice to Starkey and said, "Fix it." But it wasn't until recently that they backed the mandate with real money.
Now, ice consumes him, defines him, isolates him. Ice is his raison d'etre, his Great White Whale, his Matterhorn. "He even gave up drinking Bud Ice," says John Votava, one of Starkey's Zamboni drivers.
For instance, Starkey can tell you just how much humidity your body exudes, or how many cubic centimeters of fresh air you require, because these are the variable factors that bedevil an ice-meister. "If no one came into the arena," he says, "sheesh, I could keep it consistent."
But people do come. They come with their warm blood and their hot breath, and they do a lot more than sit there and root. They sweat. They pant. They moisten.
Starkey's computer readouts show the sharp blip in building temperature and relative humidity each time the doors swing open for all those mammals. The Pond is not exactly airtight.
Explaining in layman's terms the chaos created by Duck fans and their unseasonably warm weather, Starkey is like a perfectionist Zamboni driver buffing the ice: He goes over it and over it and over it.
"The key is dew point," he stresses. "Dew point is the critical thing."