Frozen Over: The brains behind the Big Chill ice

Max Collins/Daily
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Daily Sports Writer
Published December 7, 2010

He tried his best to be hands-off while the Olympic-size ice rink was being constructed inside Michigan Stadium for The Big Chill at the Big House.

He only wanted to know what type of water would be used to fill the rink. And when he found out it was Ann Arbor public city water, he laughed and reassured the media in attendance that the ice technicians know what they’re doing and that he had full confidence in them.

He knew that getting his team ready to play in the event was his job — not micromanaging the ice crew at Michigan Stadium.

But after skating around the finished rink on Dec. 2, Michigan coach Red Berenson couldn’t help but smile when addressing the media.

Berenson skated around the new rink for about five minutes and even showed off his legendary backhand while shooting a couple of pucks into the net at the south end of the ice.

It was cold — perfect conditions for outdoor hockey.

But Berenson’s demeanor after skating for the first time on the Big Chill ice showed he was delighted with the surface that Ice Rink Events — the company in charge of the Michigan’s rink construction — had created.

"Usually when you skate on outdoor ice, it’s lumpy and it cracks easy," Berenson said. "I'm impressed that this isn't all cracking. But these guys know what they're doing. They've broken the ice, they've redone it ... this is good ice. There might be some ice issues depending on weather and usage and everything, but you've got a lot of people that know what they're doing here."


Pat Seltsam is the brains behind the “good ice” that will be on display when the Wolverines take on their CCHA rival Spartans on Saturday.

Part innovator, part engineer, Seltsam and his company are well known when it comes to outdoor ice. With Seltsam as the project manager, Ice Rink Events creates about 40 rinks a year.

“I feel like a little bit of an artist to have to create something that fits into the right place,” Seltsam said. “Especially with (the Big Chill) rink, we worked with them to create an Olympic size rink instead of an NHL sized rink, which when you look at how it fits into that field, it works great.”

Some of the best-known rinks on Seltsam’s résumé include two World Figure Skating Championship rinks, two United States Figure Skating Shampionship rinks, the first-ever NHL Winter Classic in Buffalo, N.Y., Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Classic and Wisconsin’s first outdoor game at Lambeau Field.

Seltsam has been involved with every step of the Big Chill construction since the University told him it was interested in using the company to put on its outdoor game at Michigan Stadium.
The University got in touch with his company last winter when Ice Rink Events was in the middle of constructing the Camp Randall Classic rink at the Wisconsin.

And while the Wolverines dropped that outdoor game to the Badgers last season, 3-2, there’s no denying the impact it had in propelling the higher-ups at Michigan to push for a game at the Big House.

“I was surprised at how early and how proactive Michigan was about reaching out to us,” Seltsam said. “It was last year when Michigan first reached out to us and then we came for a site visit again in the fall. … (The Big Chill construction) went really smoothly, it was almost an identical to what we did in Wisconsin, which went extremely well.”


Other than the unpredictable winter weather in the Midwest — something the company tries to factor into its construction schedule — everything going into making the best ice possible for the largest hockey game ever went according to plan.

After using an outside company to help level the football field, Seltsam’s crew began setting up the cold air chiller, located outside the tunnel, which connects to hoses down at ice level. Coolant flows from the chiller through the pipes, working like “something that would propel the air conditioning systems in a commercial building in the summertime,” Seltsam said.

Once the cooling system was in place, the boards and the glass were cleared to go up. And after the frame of the rink was set, the ice technicians used good ‘ol Ann Arbor city water to make the actual ice.

“To actually make the ice, it’s an old fashioned man-with-a-hose,” Seltsam said. “Generally two days will get you enough water on top of those refrigeration tubes to paint the ice. But after that, you can add a little more water on there to freeze it over the paint, so you have enough ice you don’t have any of the vinyl logos sticking up.”

So is that all that goes into making Red Berenson-approved outdoor ice?

Not quite.

One thing that both Seltsam and Yost Ice Arena manager Craig Wotta emphasized during the plans leading up to the Big Chill ice construction was the need to get players skating on the ice early and often.

Once the ice is frozen, Wotta emphasized the importance of building up multiple layers of ice throughout the week to ensure that the ice is rock-solid for Saturday. Wotta said that early in the week the technicians weren’t using a blade on the zamboni to scrape the ice and instead were just filling in any cracks with water to create a solid base.

“When we do shave (the ice), we can form a new sheet of ice,” Wotta said. “Essentially, it makes the ice better. But if we don’t have the depth, if we don’t have it skated it up and if we don’t fill these cracks and crevices, it doesn’t help anything.”

Games have been played on the ice since Dec. 4 as all of the Ann Arbor high schools, plus various prep programs, local colleges, and the Michigan and Michigan State club teams have had the chance to play, scrape up and expose any glitches on the Big Chill ice.

“Any time you skate on ice, it fractures it a little bit more,” Seltsam said. “It compresses it a little bit more, so when you rebuild it and resurface it after a game, you end up with a more solid piece of ice.”

Seltsam added that while there hadn’t been any major glitches exposed this time around, the pre-Big Chill games did expose a small human error in the construction.

“(Sunday), during the Adrian and Concordia game, there (was) just some little things that we didn’t think about,” Wotta said.” Normally, there’s a hole where the referees will talk to the scorekeeper. We forgot to have that cut, but now it’s cut. But if that happens during the Big Chill, it’s like ‘Oh my, what do we do?’ From that standpoint, having the games before has been great.”


While the rink itself may be a close counterpart to the one on display at Camp Randall Stadium last February, there’s no denying the spectacle that the 113,000 in attendance will be a part of at the Big House.

Members from Guinness World Records will be present to document the event as the largest hockey game ever. And from a pre- and post-game fireworks show to fireworks commemorating each Michigan goal scored, Saturday will be as much a show as a hockey game.

While Seltsam enjoys seeing the blueprints manifest into an actual rink, the game will be Seltsam’s favorite part of the whole production.

“It’s special when you can see a skater’s experience mesh with a fan’s experience,” Seltsam said.
“The sense of creating something for an event that people will enjoy is one great thing. And when you see it publicized like it is and when people say great things about it…like when Red Berenson goes out there and says ‘Hey, this is great ice,’ we love that.”