First-of-its-kind synthetic rink put on ice due to cracks

North America's first NHL-sized plastic-based ice rink appears to be a bust after officials were forced to remove the $550,000 surface due to unexpected cracks and bumps.
Skaters in Fort Chipewyan try out North America's first NHL-sized synthetic ice rink on its opening day last December. Cracks and bumps appeared in the surface only a few months later, prompting officials to tear up the $550,000 surface. (Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo)

North America's first NHL-sized synthetic ice rink appears to be a bust after officials were forced to remove the $550,000 surface due to unexpected cracks and bumps.

The Archie Simpson Arena in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., was outfitted in December 2010 with a plastic-based surface, which acts similar to real ice but requires no refrigeration.

At the time, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which owns the arena, said the surface would save money because maintenance costs are lower than artificially cooled ice.

Problems emerged when the synthetic surface was covered with natural ice, which local hockey players prefer for the months temperatures in the northern Alberta arena stay below zero.

"The ice began to buckle and in some places there were air pockets, and it was impossible for them to get a level sheet of natural ice on it," local hockey player Darrel Laboucan told CBC News.

Laboucan said gaps also appeared between the sheets of synthetic ice, and a 2.5-centimetre-wide gap formed between the ice and boards.

David Blair, a councillor for Fort Chipewyan, told CBC the news was a blow to the municipality, which was honoured for the rink at the 2011 Minister of Municipal Affairs' Awards of Excellence.

"We thought this was a way that we could have a sports facility in Fort Chipewyan open 12 months of the year."

'Somebody made a mistake'

Georges Laraque, a former NHL player and president of Super-Glide Canada which made the synthetic ice, said workers with the municipality neglected to apply the natural ice in layers, as they were instructed.

Former NHL forward George Laraque, who owns the company that installed the ice, said the municipality is to blame for its failure. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
That caused water to seep between the sheets of synthetic ice and into the gravel foundation.

"This has nothing to do with the product, it has to do with bad luck. Somebody made a mistake," Laraque said.

His company has installed more than 400 synthetic rinks worldwide and problems have been rare, he said.

Laraque added the company that installed the rink, Wilco Contractors, repaired it free of charge several times, but the municipality would now have to pay for a new foundation.

Blair said a concrete base will be installed, which should prevent further cracking.

"I think it is our responsibility as mayor and council to jump up to the plate and get this done."

Players cool to fake ice

Even when the synthetic ice returns, Darrel Laboucan said it will be tough to get local hockey players to accept it.

Plastic ice requires more effort to skate on, which drove many players in Fort Chipewyan away from the new arena.

"It was like learning how to skate again," said Laboucan.

"I wouldn't like to see that [ice] back in the community."