TAMPA - After two weeks of regrouping, the barbarian was again hammering at the gate, probing the wall where once there had been a gaping entry.
With springtime - read: playoff - hockey in Florida comes rising temperatures and mounting humidity, the mortal enemies of ice. And therefore, the mortal enemies of the St. Pete Times Forum's director of facility operations, Tim Friedenberger.
With heat and humidity returning just in time for the Eastern Conference playoffs, Friedenberger's recent success at creating a nippy home and fast ice for the Lightning will be challenged by warm weather outside and 20,000 warm, screaming bodies inside.
"We know based on what we're doing, we're going to see a payback," Friedenberger said. "Whether that's through energy saved or improving the ice so the team improves."
Overseeing what was roundly criticized as one of the worst ice sheets in the NHL a year ago, Friedenberger has used a change of approach and the support of Palace Sports & Entertainment to create a playing surface that was recently named in on-ice officials game reports as one of the three best.
Like anyone defending a castle, Friedenberger first built a wall. Unseen by fans, a 30-plus-foot retaining wall was erected underneath the Times Forum seating bowl, plugging what once was an open portal between the ice and loading dock. An overhead door allows access to the seating bowl. Fans have not seen the wall, but they have felt the effects as temperatures within the arena seating bowl are noticeably cooler.
Building engineers also adjusted the heating/ventilating/air conditioning system in the rafters to recirculate more cool internal air rather than sucking in warm outside air.
A fiberglass-plastic polymer material used to cover the ice before putting down concert seats or the Storm's Arena football field also helps the ice retain more moisture than the plywood squares used previously.
Once a cooler environment was created, ice technician Ryan Welty's new approach to ice-making was more effective. Rather than spraying 150-degree water from a Zamboni machine directly onto the ice, Welty used a new commercial system that aerates the water, cooling it by as much as half before it hits the ice. That facilitates quicker, smoother freezing.
"In hockey, over the past 10 years, players' equipment, the way they play has improved dramatically," Friedenberger said. "As far as how we do ice with the Zamboni, it's the same technology as 20 years ago. The technology has just started keeping up with the sport."
Lightning players have noticed a difference.
"I think they're doing a great job," Lightning forward Ruslan Fedotenko said.
"Sometimes it's a little snowy, but it is better."
Friedenberger, 39, watches home games from the Zamboni portal, arms crossed in a sports jacket, walkie-talkie in hand. But he and his staff feel very much a part of what happens inside the boards.
"If the ice is nice and fast, the puck will be nice and fast, and there will be good passing," he said. "That would be a very good thing for our team."
And already good for Tampa's reputation. When Dan Craig, the NHL's facilities operations manager, inspected the surface a few weeks ago, he paid the ultimate compliment, the ice equivalent of Giorgio Armani saying "nice suit."
"Out of his own mouth," Friedenberger said, "he said this is the best ice sheet in the league. You don't know how much that means. For us, that's like the guys taking the Cup, to be rated by the NHL guru as best ice in the league."
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