Making a curling sheet out of a hockey rink is both a science and an art.
For a self-described “couple of Saskatchewan farmers,” it’s also a pseudo-business.
For the past 10 years, Jayson Braaten and Jerry Spence, along with a few friends, have been working on these hockey-rink-to-curling-venue transformations in Canada.
Last week they converted the Homer Ice Arena into the curling venue for the 2006 Arctic Winter Games. And the competitors and coaches have been raving about the ice.
“It’s really a hobby gone wrong,” Bratten said.
Both men grow red wheat, field peas and lentils near Abbey, population 137.
In the winter they tow a large trailer filled with specialized ice-making equipment, as well as all the stones, scoreboards and rubber boards needed for competition.
It took them six days to travel the nearly 3,000 miles last week, towing their gear from small-town Saskatchewan to small-town Alaska.
“Honestly we had never heard of Homer before we got the call,” Bratten said. “We looked on a map and said ‘we just can’t get there from here.’”
He said he was happy with the facilities and the people when he got to town, however.
“I love this place. The people are great,” he said. “They even bring us fish.”
A curling sheet requires perfectly flat ice, crystal clear water and specific temperatures, Bratten said. Most hockey rinks have none of these attributes.
So Bratten and his team start by flattening out high or low spots on the hockey ice and running the local water supply through a filtering system.
The ice rink in Homer was off by just nine-tenths of an inch, which isn’t bad, Bratten said. Some rinks are two to three inches off-level.
The team then paints the lines and large circular targets called the house at both ends and floods the rink with the pure, filtered water.
When that sets, they check for level once again and scrape it down with a special machine that looks like a rototiller with a single blade.
After the ice is scraped and brushed off, the team sprinkles the surface with water to get a pebbling effect. It’s the pebbles that allow the heavy stones to slide, Bratten said.
“If you didn’t have pebbles, you couldn’t slide a stone from one end to the other, too much friction,” Bratten said.
Pebbling is the art of sheet-making knowing how big the pebbles should be and how many to make.
If they’ve done a good job the sheet is considered “keen” or fast, and the stones will be able to “curl” or curve up to 5 feet from side to side.
Bratten takes praise in stride.
“The more you do it, the better you get,” he said. “We do this every time. And sometimes you go into places and you don’t get the results.”
Between matches, the team maintains the ice. When they’re not working, they are enjoying what Homer has to offer.
This is Bratten’s first trip to Alaska, and on Wednesday he was planning on going winter king salmon fishing.
“I’ve never been in the ocean on a boat before. I’ll remember the Dramamine,” he said.
Back home, Bratten said there are basically only two sports in the wintertime hockey and curling.
“It’s huge,” he said.
The TV ratings peak for curling events and 15,000 people flood into hockey arenas to watch the national finals firsthand, he said.
But with three kids and a farm to tend, as well as dozens of curling venues to create each winter, Bratten and his wife have limited their sheet time to just one night a week.
“If it’s Thursday night, we’re going curling,” he said. “I guess it’s like a bowling league here. It’s our night out.”
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