Bad curling ice not an option for Merklinger

When you spend a few decades working alongside Clarence "Shorty" Jenkins, the guy who wrote the bible on how to make and maintain curling ice, you learn a thing or two about what it takes to keep curlers happy.

Dave Merklinger owes his livelihood as chief ice technician for the Canadian Curling Association to the wisdom he gained at early age in Ontario hanging around the rink with Jenkins at the Trenton Curling Club, and that started when he was just 14 volunteering on the ice crew. Working for french fries and hot dogs sweeping the ice for a dollar a draw, Merklinger followed Jenkins to small arenas in the '70s and by the '80s they were working together in the biggest rinks at the Scotties, Brier, Canadian juniors and world championships.

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"Shorty was proactive, he wanted to understand how ice worked and he really did a tremendous job to allow us to have the ice we have today," said Merklinger, in Prince George this week to build the CN Centre playing surface for the World Women's Curling Championship, which starts Saturday.

Just as Jenkins did ever year before his death in 2013, Merklinger tries to create the liveliest, most predictable ice conditions at each event. He's seen just about every fly in the ointment that can scuttle those plans but wasn't prepared for a wrinkle Jenkins threw at him while working as his assistant at the 1997 Brier at the Saddledome in Calgary.

Just before the first rock was thrown, Jenkins had been keeping a group of reporters entertained for about an hour with his colourful curling yarns when Merklinger made an alarming discovery. The ice temperature was two degrees warmer than what it should be, just before the crowd of 18,000 warm-bodied spectators were about to settle into their seats.

"That was scary, but it turned out good," said Merklinger.

"Shorty had one job only and that was to control the temperature of the ice, to see what the thermometer was saying. So I walked out and looked at it and we were about a half an hour before game time and we were about two degrees warmer than we had to be. So I said, 'Clarence, what's the temperature of the ice?' and he gave me this number and started to panic and said: "Geez, I've got to do everything.'

"We worked very well together, I was his protegé. I helped him learn about making ice as much as he knew it but he applied it and together we produced very good ice."

Merklinger, 65, a native of Montreal, had parents who worked in military service and they moved around the country. He got his start as a curler in Winnipeg and the family was living in Trenton when his younger sister Anne took up the sport. They eventually settled in Ottawa and Anne, a national-level swimmer, went on to become one of the top skips in the country. She and her Ontario rink went all the way to the final of the 2000 Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Prince George, and lost 9-4 to Kelley Law of New Westminster.

Dave now makes his home in Vernon and his ties to P.G. go back to November 2009, when he worked with Hans Wuthrich and Eric Montford to make the ice at CN Centre for the Road to the Roar, the final qualifying event before Canada's Olympic trials. That same crew built the rink for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Dave's 39-year-old son Mike, is deputy chief ice tech for the Women's World tournament and just like his dad he started out as a volunteer. Mike lives in Kelowna and is the ice tech for four curling clubs - Kelowna, Kamloops, Langley and Cloverdale. He worked as the chief at a Grand Slam event in Halifax this season and the Canadian junior championships in Langley and will also be alongside his dad at the World Seniors/Mixed Doubles Championships in Kelowna in April.

They arrived in Prince George Friday and right after the Cougars' game went to work applying the first flood. They'll have added a half-inch thick layer of new ice by the time of the final flood, which will take them through the duration of the tournament. For the nine-day event the Merklingers and their crew of 20 ice volunteers will be putting in 15-hour days maintaining the ice after each draw, which will leave very little time for them to socialize in The Patch.

Frost is the f-word for curlers and humidity is the enemy that makes frost possible in the arena. A frosty surface makes an inconsistent rink which can affect the speed of the rocks as they travel down the ice - a nightmare for the teams. When the ice is bad, the chief ice tech gets the blame.

With no dehumidifiers at CN Centre, everybody's praying rain won't saturate the air over the city for the next two weeks. Dave remembers one morning at the 2016 Brier in Ottawa when he arrived at the rink and couldn't see the rings on the ice because they were covered in frost. He faced a similar  high-humidity disaster at the 2018 World Men's Championship in Las Vegas when a year's worth of rain came down in one or two days. In 2017 at the Scotties Tournament in St. Catharines, Ont., he had to scrape the ice midway through a draw after just five ends.

"Frosty ice is not conducive to making lots of shots," said Dave, whose full-time job is manager/ice maker of the Vernon Curling Club.

This week they've been trying to make the ice as flat as possible before they start putting down the pebble, water droplets that freeze into raised dots of ice that reduce friction so the rocks travel freely under their own weight, heating the top of the pebble to create a thin layer of water. The concave bottom surface of each rock minimizes how much of that 44 pounds of granite comes into contact with the ice.

The friction of the ice biting the rocks is what makes them curl. The ice techs clip the top of the pebble to add to the curling effect and they time how long it takes for rocks to travel and make adjustments to the ice temperature to create the best possible conditions. Sweepers use their brooms to brush the pebbles and that provides a brief melt that keeps the rock moving straighter and further down the rink. The challenge for curlers is reading conditions as the pebbles flatten.

"Rocks need pebble to glide down the ice and you need good (filtered and deionized) water," said Dave.

Over the years, Dave Merklinger has been to Japan and Europe to have his brain picked on how to make curling ice. It's gotten to the point where his counterparts overseas know what they're doing, so he's not making those trips any more.

"I kind of missed out on that because they've got their own guys now," said Mike.

Dave got rave reviews from the curlers for the ice he and his crew built last month for the Scotties tournament in Moose Jaw. He's watched enough world championships and World Curling Tour events to know who the powerhouse teams are among the 13 coming to Prince George and predicts Team Canada skip Kerri Einarson of Gimli, Man., will have her hands full trying to give Canada its first win since Jennifer Jones captured the trophy in 2018.

"They should be good, it's their first time here and they're in Canada," said Dave. "There's going to be four of five teams that can win it - Canada, Scotland Sweden and Switzerland. Look out for Germany and look out for China and Korea, they're always good."

So far organizers have the green light to go ahead with the event, despite the international threat of coronavirus.

"It's not something that's in our control so we don't worry about it," said Dave. "We just go out and do our job."






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