The weather gods haven’t been kind to the Labatt Blue Buffalo Pond Hockey Tournament.
Two years ago, unseasonably warm weather shifted the games from the “pond” to the street.
Two other years, either warm weather, freezing rain or snow took a huge bite out of the schedule. Game lengths were shortened one year.
Only twice has the schedule survived fully intact on ice.
“We’ve been very unlucky in weather,” said Lisa Texido, Labatt brand manager. “That’s forced us to come up with alternative solutions to take the weather out of the equation.”
This year, though, tournament organizers don’t mind if the temperatures climb into the 30s and low 40s, as expected, when the event gets underway Friday and Saturday.
That’s because the six regulation pond-hockey rinks will make use of a refrigeration unit that will keep the ice cooled to anywhere from 18 to 22 degrees, no matter how warm it gets the next few days.
That means even if the air temperature climbed to 60 degrees this weekend, the ice wouldn’t get any warmer than 22 degrees, the rinks’ project managers explained. It just will cost more to refrigerate it.
“This is the first year when we have an eye on the weather, but we’re not living and dying with it,” Texido explained. “That’s a welcome relief.”
What about the rain, considered likely to hit Friday morning?
That still can pose a problem.
“If we get a light rain, it will freeze on contact and won’t affect anything,” Texido said. “If it’s a heavy rain or a downpour, the ice may get a little soft temporarily, so we’ll take a short break and get the players off the ice. But it won’t stop the games.”
That hasn’t always been the case.
No matter how cold and cruel Buffalo’s winters can be, the last two years showed how difficult it can be to plan a hockey tournament on Lake Erie.
Last year, the man-made ice rinks were in perfect condition the day before the tournament, until a winter storm blasted the area with wet snow and freezing rain. Several rinks were deemed unplayable, and only about 25 percent of the games were played.
The year before was even worse for pond-hockey purists.
In 2012, the unseasonably warm winter left Lake Erie unfrozen. So players traded in their skates for winter boots and sneakers, during a three-day street-hockey tournament. When the games moved from the ice to the streets, the number of teams dwindled from 144 to 64.
So tournament organizers this year opted for a surer thing, moving to the refrigerated rinks on at Buffalo RiverWorks on Ganson Street.
This year’s tournament, located across the Buffalo River from River Fest Park, just south of the Michigan Avenue bridge, will feature 800 players on 120 teams skating on two huge ice pads, one 185 by 85 feet, the other 170 by 85. Each pad will accommodate three pond-hockey rinks, laid out width-wise, each 85 feet long.
The numbers are staggering in terms of the amount of tubing and liquid refrigerant used. Each large ice pad uses 15 miles of one-inch tubing, long enough to drive to Amherst, and 2,500 gallons of liquid brine solution.
To explain it simply, the brine goes through an ammonia refrigeration unit, where it’s chilled to a temperature of between 8 and 12 degrees, before traveling through the miles of tubing to act as a refrigerant for the ice surface above. The ice then is maintained at anywhere from 18 to 22 degrees.
Crews bring out the hoses to spray water on the rinks, creating the level of ice thickness needed.
Because the rink workers lacked the time and proper weather conditions to lay down a concrete slab above the tubing, this year’s ice surface will be close to 7 inches thick. Next year, a concrete surface will sit below 1½ to 1¾ inches of ice.
During the ice-making process, workers also paint the rink white. That coat of paint will give the surface a cleaner appearance, while also serving as an insulator, to help block the sun’s rays and maintain the ice’s low temperature.
There’s a certain curiosity, almost an irony, that after all the slushy conditions at the Erie Basin Marina, the Labatt tournament has moved during a winter when Lake Erie is almost completely frozen and the marina ice is extremely thick.
That doesn’t bother the organizers a bit, especially if the rain comes Friday or Saturday.
“We’re better off here,” Texido said, at the Ganson Street site. “The rain will freeze a lot quicker here than it would at the marina. The refrigeration system is just a safety net that we didn’t have anywhere else.”
The tournament runs from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, with champions crowned in 11 divisions.