Feb. 7, 2022

For Olympic Oval ice-makers, ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough

In Bejing, UCalgary team imports its global expertise and drive for perfection to yet another edition of the Winter Olympics
Olympic Oval operations manager Mark Messer, centre, in Beijing with other members of the UCalgary ice-making crew.
Olympic Oval operations manager Mark Messer, centre, in Beijing with other members of the UCalgary ice-making crew. Courtesy Peter McCrory

He was there in 1983 when ice first went into the Saddledome. He was there in 1987 when ice first went into the Olympic Oval.

And, decades later, Mark Messer continues to create world-class surfaces.

He was in Beijing overseeing ice-making production for long-track speedskating at the 2022 Olympics. It’s an undertaking that features electric resurfacing machines and an unprecedented carbon dioxide cooling scheme, a green alternative to refrigeration systems of the past.

To stay on the leading edge of an evolving business for nearly 40 years, the Olympic Oval’s operations manager takes note of every trend.

“A lot of things have changed,” says Messer, widely regarded as the finest ice-maker on the planet. “Tons of changes to the way ice is put in, the procedures you do, the products we can use, the technology we can tap into.”

Attention to detail brings results

Beijing was Messer’s sixth Winter Games — and the eighth in which Oval staffers have been involved.

A handy testament of Messer’s ability is the track in Calgary. On its ice, the fastest anywhere, more than 300 world records have been shattered, according to Peter McCrory, Olympic Oval director.

“A lot of that is down to the dedication and the attention to detail that our ice technicians put in,” says McCrory. “We’re very proud to have Mark, very humbled to have him, and delighted that he can contribute to yet another Games.”

With him in Beijing from the Oval were Andy Yardy; Dylan Rama, BA’16; and Justin Murphy, along with Matt Messer, a former Oval employee now working in Edmonton.

On-the-job cohesion is a priority. “There has to be a chemistry,” says Mark Messer. “If one person doesn’t fit, it throws off the whole team.

“It’s like a sporting team in a lot of ways.”

Participating at Olympics is legitimate thrill

Every time Mark Messer’s crew is invited to participate, it’s a legitimate thrill, given the perception of the Olympics as the pinnacle of the profession. And, he points out, they are never content to ride their reputation as they travel the globe, lending their expertise.

“We hold ourselves to a very high standard,” he says. “I think that’s what people identify and that’s why they keep coming to us. We don’t like to settle for mediocrity. I try to drill into the guys that the phrase, ‘That’s good enough,’ is never used. Everybody on our team lives by that.”

Such is his reputation that, for recent Winter Games, Messer has even been consulted on the construction of facilities. This time, after convincing Beijing organizers to adopt CO2, he implemented a groundbreaking cooling process that doesn’t rely on Freon or glycol.

“CO2 has been used for many years as a refrigerant, usually in big industrial systems,” explains Messer, who made a dozen trips to Beijing in the past four years. “It never had the smaller components that could be used in a rink ... but now we can get away from these chemical refrigerants that are so damaging.

“This is much more environmentally friendly. That was an (International Olympic Committee) mantra — ‘We want to have green Olympics.’ This was a good step.”

Ice needs to be cold, hard, smooth

On top of which, the new approach works well. With ease, the crew can control temperatures, a must in this business because long-track ice needs to be cold, hard and smooth.

“(Skate) blades are so narrow, any cuts — like you get in a hockey rink — would grab the blade and deform your stride,” says Messer. “So it has to be like a glass finish.”

The competition phase started Feb. 5 at the National Speed Skating Oval in Beijing. Even if there is only one event per day, 200 other skaters are practising beforehand. “A bit hectic,” says Messer. “We have 45 minutes to get everything from training mode to ... perfect for the competition.”

This is his team’s aim — quality assurance.

“We don’t want to be a factor,” says Messer. “We should have no influence on any of the results. It should be the best performance by the best skater that day.”

And, of course, it’s never too early to look ahead. Messer has already spoken to the IOC about recommendations for the 2026 Olympics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. A request for help — once again — would be no surprise.

“We recognize that, as leading experts in the field, we have a duty to give back — so we do,” says McCrory. “We’re incredibly proud of the reputation.”

Events will be livestreamed on cbc.ca. Check out the CBC's events schedule and results.