June 27, 2014

Even outside world of speedskating, Oval 'Icemeister' is a legend

Order of the University of Calgary acknowledges Mark Messer's contribution to sports and Canada
Mark Messer at home in the Olympic Oval, always looking to make it Canada's "home ice."

Mark Messer at home in the Olympic Oval, always looking to make it Canada's "home ice."

In the past when people wanted to learn an art form, they visited a master. Just as people travelled around the world to learn at the feet of da Vinci or Rembrandt, they come from around the world to learn the secrets of fast ice from Mark Messer, director of operations at the Olympic Oval. “Most people come here and look at what we do and how we do it and use the information to try to make their building better, which is great for the sport. We don't resist that at all, but at the end of the day it's not just the process, it's the guys who are doing it that make the big difference.”

Messer doesn't take credit for his status as the world’s premiere ice-making guru, but he has made ice at nearly every Olympic Games since 1988. The University of Calgary Oval holds so many world records, it has become known as “the world’s fastest ice.” Messer was recognized for his efforts on June 11 when he was awarded The Order of the University of Calgary, an honour granted to “worthy recipients who have a record of exemplary and distinguished service.”

Icemaking career began during downturn

Messer came to the university from the Calgary Stampede in 1987. He actually started his career as a heavy mechanic and was forced to find new work following the economic downturn of the late ‘80s. He wound up making ice at the Saddledome, and was invited to join the new team being assembled to make ice for the world’s first covered speedskating oval.

Dutch speedskating magazines predicted catastrophe for the 1988 Calgary Games because the ice-making was in the hands of — as they put it — “ham-fisted hockey-ice-makers.” Twenty-seven years later, Messer still recalls the exact words, because like most champions, he uses comments like that as fuel. The ice, of course, wasn’t a disaster; in fact, several world records were broken, and the legend of the Oval was born. 

“It was good. Part of the reason it was good is because of our altitude, which helps a little bit, the air is a little bit thinner so that's definitely an advantage,” says Messer. “With the Oval being covered there was no wind so if we did anything right we should have had some success. It wasn't the greatest ice for sure. The times we set there are so slow compared to now.”   

Speedskating world sat up and took notice

This self-effacement doesn’t really do justice to the history. Six world records were in fact set at the World Cup pre-Olympic competition in December 1987, which immediately caught the attention of the speedskating world. While many attributed that success to beginner’s luck, the 258 long-track and 30 short-track records that have subsequently been set on Oval ice suggest that the ham-fisted ice-makers may know something about fast ice. 

The rest of the world certainly thought so, and before long Messer was being invited everywhere to do what he does best, learning all about the sport and the politics that come with being part of an Olympic Games. “I don't know how many countries I've been to now. The first trip I ever had was probably in 1994 to Hamar, Norway for their (pre-Olympic) test event. We got the call three days before the race, from these guys who wanted to know if I could come over and help them. That turned into a real political football. I got there and it should have been a great thing. The organizing committee that brought me wanted me to help, but the guy who ran the rink didn't want me to have any part of it. I ended up in the back room just talking with the Zamboni guys and the ice-makers and we exchanged ideas back and forth. They ended up posting some great times and we worked around this guy.”

Looking for a Canadian edge

In the years that followed, Messer soon found he didn’t have to hide behind the Zambonis. He was frequently called upon to make sure the ice was perfect on sports’ biggest stage. When he was called on to help, he always tried to give Canada whatever edge he could. “There was the loonie in the ice at Salt Lake which the hockey guy did,” recalls Messer. “It started very innocently. You have to mark centre ice when you're making ice. They put a loonie down just to mark it and then that turned into a huge story. So we were going to Torino and I talked to the sports psychologist here. I asked her, ‘What can I do make it more like home ice for Canada?’ We ended up putting this gold maple leaf in the ice and only the Canadian skaters knew about it. I also put in a couple of Molson Canadian caps — to me that was Canada — the little red maple leaf on the top. I put one of those at each of the finish lines on the sly. We've always tried to do something to make it homelike no matter where we go and make it home ice for the Canadians. 2010 was pretty easy. It was home ice.”

Psychology aside, Messer says the key to a fair competition is ensuring the ice conditions are the same for all skaters throughout the day, since a sport in which winning and losing is decided in the thousandths of a second is necessarily all about the details. 

'Icemeister' acknowledged outside his sport 

If you ask any skater, from Cindy Klassen, to Jeremy Wotherspoon, to Denny Morrison or Claudia Pechstein, they’ll be the first to tell you how important ice is to the sport of speedskating. You won’t need to introduce them to Mark Messer either; the skaters already know what the 'Icemeister' has done behind the scenes for decades. His selection to receive The Order of the University of Calgary was a rare opportunity for the rest of the world to applaud the guy who helps make champions.

“It's a huge honour for me. I don't like having honours bestowed just for longevity. Just because you’ve been there the longest you shouldn't be honoured. I'm representing all the people at the Olympic Oval who have worked hard to create our success and helped to make that building what it is today.”