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With the Stanley Cup in full swing, ice maintenance is a balancing act

“My wife will tell you I eat, sleep and breathe Tampa Bay Lightning hockey,” says Tom Miracle. “This time of year, it’s stressful. The further you go, the greater demand.”
“My wife will tell you I eat, sleep and breathe Tampa Bay Lightning hockey,” says Tom Miracle. “This time of year, it’s stressful. The further you go, the greater demand.”
Published Jun. 5, 2015

TAMPA — The ice temperature beneath the Tampa Bay Lightning players' skates hovers between 22 and 23 degrees.

The summer sear outside Amalie Arena punches past 90.

So how does the arena simulate a northern winter in the midst of a Florida summer?

Answer: smart engineering and a lot of hustle.

Doing the hustling is Amalie ice operations manager Tom Miracle and his 15-member crew, who are always on the move during games.

It's their job to keep the ice smooth, hard and cold, with a depth of an inch and a quarter. Too thick, the surface temperature is higher and the ice is soft. Too dry, the ice becomes brittle. Too wet, and it's slippery.

"My mind never sleeps," Miracle said during a tour this week of Amalie's underbelly. "I'm constantly thinking of things that I can do or things that need to be done."

When the Lightning tries to tie up the Stanley Cup final Saturday night, thousands of fans, crew and media members will cram into the arena, breathing their hot breath and sweating their hot sweat.

"We have 20,000 fans on a game day, and we're all giving off heat and humidity as we walk into the building," Amalie Arena general manager Darryl Benge said.

Miracle stays busy even when the game clock isn't running — talking to players, officials and technicians, asking about the ice conditions and making reports. He and his crew measure depth and temperature and periodically smooth out the ice, using gadgets as high-tech as a digital monitor, as simple as a broom and as gargantuan as a Zamboni, which sweeps up "snow" — chips of ice that skates kick up — and sprays a layer of water that fills in the grooves.

Just beneath the Zamboni's tires is a concrete slab whose temperature must stay at 14 degrees. When he needs to put down new ice, Miracle goes down to the ice plant, a room with four large compressors, a couple of monitors and a box of earplugs near the door. He turns some dials and flips a switch, and the compressors roar to life, pumping refrigerants to the slab so that the water freezes as soon as it leaves the Zamboni.

Just as important are the conditions inside the building. A massive heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, maintained by a team of engineers, keeps the seating bowl in the low 60s. The system works harder when it's hot out, but the building's "envelope" design — an outer shell insulating the smaller, colder bowl — also helps.

As long as everything works correctly, the Florida summer becomes just another factor the arena has to consider, like the kinds of lights hanging in the rafters or the variety of shows it hosts.

"Those of us in a southern climate just have to have our buildings designed with more equipment," Benge said. "But at the end of the day, once you have a building in an envelope, once the system's designed, there's really not much difference."

Over the years, keeping the temperature constant and cold has gotten easier. Before a retaining wall was constructed between the stands and the loading dock, it was "killer" when the doors opened, Miracle said. Nothing separated the ice from the summer swelter. The wall was a much-needed barrier.

"That helped me tremendously," he said.

Then, $10 million of the $60 million the arena has spent on renovations since Jeff Vinik took ownership of the Lightning in 2011 went to upgrading the heating and air conditioning system, Benge said.

This Saturday and next, and again on June 17 if the Cup reaches a seventh game, Miracle and his team will get to the arena at 7 a.m. to make sure the concrete floor is cold enough, clear off any frost or debris and drill the goal post holes for morning practice. With a digital monitor — a major upgrade from the drill and bit they used back in the day — they'll measure the depth of the ice several times before the night's game and put down more if needed.

"This time of year, it's stressful," Miracle said. "The further you go, the greater demand. But I've told them from the beginning — I do the same thing for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals that I do for the preseason. … The weather changes things, the crowd changes things, the atmosphere changes things, but I still do the best I can do. I still demand the best out of my staff."

From the moment the puck drops, Miracle will be in and out of the ice plant, one eye on the game clock so that the compressors can go on and the Zamboni can go out at exactly the right time. Every TV break will find his crew on the ice with their brooms. And if a piece of the surrounding glass breaks, in three minutes — tops — it will be replaced, smooth as the freshly swept ice in the Florida summer.

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