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Helene Elliott / ON THE NHL

On Surface, Puck Stops Here

May 21, 2006|Helene Elliott

The playing surface at the Arrowhead Pond on Friday looked and played like a real pond, mushy in some spots, bumpy in others and altogether inhospitable to swiftly and accurately passing a small rubber disk in a manner that would justify hockey's reputation as the fastest game on ice.

"It felt more like an outdoor rink in the springtime when the sun comes out," Mighty Duck right wing Teemu Selanne said Saturday.

"It's tough, because when you have the puck, you almost have to make sure you get rid of it because something might happen if you pass it."

Teammate Joffrey Lupul called the ice in the opener of the Western Conference finals "the worst of the year." That's saying a lot in an arena that has struggled to produce good ice in a tropical climate since it opened its doors.

"It was terrible, and I don't know what they're doing but I hope they're working on it," said Lupul, who added that he'd played on far better surfaces in junior hockey. "The puck died. It was bouncing. Pucks were bouncing in front of the net and going all over the place. On the power play, that's where it hurts you.

"Sure, it was the same for both teams, but it was bad for the hockey game. It makes for a better game when the ice is good. I'm guessing it's going to be the same [today] and we just have to adjust."

Lest this be interpreted as losers' laments, it's important to note that the Edmonton Oilers echoed those sentiments after their 3-1 victory.

"The ice wasn't very good at all," center Shawn Horcoff said. "I don't know if they can do something to improve it. The puck was rolling, and sometimes it stopped short.

"It's frustrating, but we have to deal with it."

Defenseman Ruslan Salei, the Ducks' longest-serving player, called it "the usual Anaheim Pond ice" in a tone that suggested the usual isn't optimal. It's not, especially during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL has done so much to enhance the pace and flow of games, removing obstruction so skaters can skate and scorers can score. It's a shame that during the best time of the season, when intensity heightens and nerves pulsate, sub-par ice prevents players from fully displaying those skills.

Supervising the ice at every site is the duty of Dan Craig, the NHL's facilities operation manager and the guru who for many years provided the smooth, shining sheets that made Edmonton's home rink every player's favorite. On Saturday, long after the Ducks had practiced and the few Oilers who'd opted to skate had left the Pond, Craig was watching the Zamboni go around and consulting with engineers and arena employees on how to improve the ice for Game 2 today.

Craig acknowledged that the surface wasn't perfect on Friday and said a couple of coaches from both teams had raised concerns. He said he asked them to be specific about where pucks had hopped or stopped and when, because while wear and tear is inevitable late in the period, such problems shouldn't occur in the early going.

"What we try to do is extend the life of the sheet to the 15-, 16-, 17-minute mark," Craig said. "My ultimate goal is to give them 20 minutes of the best sheet I can. My challenge is to give them the best ice through the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final, if need be. That's why you lose a lot of sleep and take a lot of early flights."

On Friday, he said, "the snow was a little crunchy on the top end, and that's what influenced the puck and contributed to a couple of bounces." Afterward, he said, "if you'd walked on the sheet with me you could have seen who was really pressing for a goal, because there was a lot of snow in front of [Oilers goalie Dwayne] Roloson and none at the other end."

The Ducks reduced the temperature of the Pond this season by eight degrees, to just below 60 at the opening faceoff, and they've banned on-ice intermission activity during the playoffs. General Manager Brian Burke said the air conditioning was turned up full-blast as needed Friday to counter the warm air fans brought into the arena and the body heat produced by more than 17,000 people.

Burke takes this seriously: during his tenure as the NHL's director of hockey operations, he hired Craig to oversee the ice at rinks around the league.

"Good ice is a product of a lot of thought and hard work," Burke said.

Craig said he looked into the chemistry of the water and "tweaked a couple of things" Saturday afternoon. When the puck drops today, he wants the temperature to be 58 or 59 degrees and the humidity at 44%, down a few points from Friday.

"Hopefully, the snow will be nice and fluffy," he said. "There's a lot of little things we continuously battle. You're in a multi-purpose facility and it's a challenge, no matter if you're in Anaheim, Edmonton or Carolina. Everybody has to be on their 'A' game."

He'll be the guy with the dark circles under his eyes today.

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