The Dawning Of A New Ice Age

May 16, 2002
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KENTWOOD — No need to buy an expensive Zamboni when a less costly sweeper and scrubber, say from Bissell, will clean it. Installing and operating it costs roughly 20 percent of what the frozen stuff does. It never gets slushy no matter what the weather. And a sheet can last up to 20 years, a decade on each side.

In short, the company says there’s no skating on financially thin ice with their product, and Dick Bertrand agrees. Bertrand is the Kentwood-based exclusive distributor of Viking Ice in Michigan, and just one of seven such agents in the country. Viking Ice isn’t real ice, but it skates awfully close.

Made of polyethylene and thermoplastic panels with a specially treated plywood core, Bertrand said that Viking Ice offers nearly the identical skating friction of a newly resurfaced sheet of ice, but for a fraction of the cost.

No condensers, compressors, or special floors with freon-filled pipes are needed, and electric costs are almost nonexistent in comparison. What is needed is a floor. Then maybe some lights, a vacuum to pick up the infrequent shavings, a scrubber to polish it up, and a spray can of silicone to give it its glide.

“If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was refrigerated ice instead of synthetic ice,” said Bertrand.

If anyone should know about ice, Bertrand should. He’s logged lots of ice time from his playing days to coaching hockey. For 17 years, he coached at Cornell and Ferris State universities, before moving on to direct the marketing efforts of auto-parts maker LDI Inc. for seven years. Today, he is the director of hockey for the East Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association, and is putting the final touches on a new skating tool to help adults and children learn to ice skate faster and with fewer spills.

Bertrand is marketing Viking Ice for commercial, recreational and residential uses. He is talking with rink owners and municipal officials, telling them the product can reduce the cost of ice time and still deliver a profit. Sporting goods stores also are his target, as a sheet would allow customers to try out skates before buying. And, he said, home owners may want a sheet to provide extra practice time for the next Tara Lipinski or Steve Yzerman.

At the commercial end, Bertrand said most rinks pay between $14,000 and $20,000 a month for electricity. In comparison, electric costs run about $1,200 a month for Viking Ice. Overall, he said operating costs for the synthetic sheets are from 80 percent to 90 percent lower than the refrigerated version.

Bertrand made it clear, however, that this ice isn’t intended to replace refrigerated ice, as the American Hockey League isn’t planning to hold the Calder Cup playoffs on it soon. But the product still has lots of uses for a lot of different situations and people. He pointed out that it can be used for training, developing, teaching, coaching and conditioning because the skating surface is so close to the real thing.

“When a Zamboni comes out and resurfaces the ice, the glide factor is about 100 percent, whereas the glide factor on synthetic would be anywhere between 90 and 95 percent. Now an hour later, the glide factor on refrigerated would probably be around about 85 percent. With the synthetic, you’re still at that 90 to 95 percent,” he said.

“Then if you go two hours, you’ve got about a 75 percent glide factor because of the snow, and the synthetic stays the same,” he added. “So the bottom line is, the more you skate on the synthetic, the smoother it gets and the smoother it stays.”

Viking Ice comes in 24-inch-by-47-inch panels, with a warranty, and is reversible. The product has two thickness levels: one for residential use and another for commercial applications.

“It’s warranted for 10 years. If one side wears out, you can just flip the other side over and you’ve got it for another 10 years,” he said. “It has a plywood core in the middle that eliminates contraction, expansion and warping.

“Whatever dimension you want you can get. It is currently in garages and basements — wherever people have set it up. Their kids can not only figure skate on it, they can recreational skate, speed skate and play hockey on it.”

Bertrand has had interest from homeowners and has showcased the product to public officials. He said at least three local communities will likely add a Viking sheet.

At least 50 sites in North America have installed the synthetic ice. The most famous are Radio City Music Hall in New York and Walt Disney World in Orlando. Other Viking rinks have been built in China, Japan, Colombia, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom, Venezuela, Egypt and India. About three-dozen residences in North America have a Viking rink already.

Bertrand said the product is currently being installed at Six Flags Amusement Park in California. Viking is producing a video of that installation, which will be available for interested customers to view. In the meantime, Bertrand said he has an earlier video that he can show, and plenty of information that he can share at 949-9966.

Viking Ice, based in Portland, Ore., is a division of Greenwood Forest Products. Greenwood is a 23-year-old, $60 million company. Viking Ice has been around since 1985.

Bertrand got involved with Viking after he read a USA Today story about people skating on the product on a summer day in the Bahamas. He contacted Viking and was so impressed with what company officials told him that he flew to the Bahamas to try out the ice himself.

“I was really amazed to find that, except for a slight drag when you first get on the ice, you could do the same things on synthetic that you could on refrigerated,” said Bertrand. “You can skate, stop, stickhandle, shoot, cross over, cut, turn, go backwards, do all those things on synthetic ice for 80 to 90 percent less of the operating costs.”   

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