Alec Grubola is a head ice technician. Unlike most folks in that position, he had no formal experience, and no two-week transition to ease him into the job. It was sink or swim. Flying by the seat of your pants. To get him through, he asked questions, followed forums and learned through trial and error. His biggest helping hand, however, isn’t usually associated with what ice technicians do. Alec Grubola turned to data.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Knowing where you are, and where you’ve been, makes it easy to visualize the future so you can know where you want to be — and that’s where data comes in. Grubola did exactly that with his ice thickness measurements. All his tappings, his Monday morning drill tests, were diligently recorded in the free spreadsheet program, Google Sheets. It was a habit that reminded him of each little success (and each downfall) and, over time, turned him into a proud ice maker with a quality product.

It’s not that he didn’t know about ice or what was expected as a head ice technician. Growing up in Kentucky, he played competitive ice hockey in the most ice-aware position on a team: the goaltender. He has an eye for detail, studying Fine Art at the University of Louisville, where he made the Dean’s List and specialized in the hottest art ever — glass blowing. Moving out West, he proved his capacity to work hard, spending two seasons fighting forest fires, and then tried his hand at playground design. Being hired as the head ice technician at The RRRink — the only year-round arena in Southern Oregon — brought him back indoors and gave him a challenge in an “amazing, family-run organization” run by matriarch, Dorothy Smith.

Data Tracker

The data tracking began with his first on-ice maintenance on Monday, March 11, 2019. At the RRRink, Monday morning maintenance is given a 4-hour time slot. Grubola starts by measuring the ice thickness – drilling through the ice down to the concrete, sticking a calliper down the hole and recording each result. Then he spends the rest of the morning “putting the ice back together again” based on that data.

Grubola tracks over 20 spots on the Rrrink’s single NHL-sized surface. When he’s finished, he adds those results to a new column in Google Sheets, using colors to show the good, the bad, and the ugly levels. With that knowledge, Grubola knows where the ice is at, and can plan for where he wants it to be.

“Honestly, when I started, I was concerned about how poorly the ice had been kept up,” he says. “The ice was so thin in places that with one good hard turn, you’re scraping concrete. That was really freaky.”

Freaky? If you don’t believe him, take a look at where he started, a mishmashed kaleidoscope of colors (and ice thicknesses):

Ice thickness measurements when Alec Grubola began measuring in March of 2019
The first 10 weeks of tracking showed optimal ice thickness was being achieved just 33% of the time.

The drill test data is tracked in millimetres to make the measurements easier to compare than inches. He highlights the high spots (in blue), the low spots (in red) and the proper level (in green) — between 32-50mm (or 1 ¼ to 1 15/16″). Over the first 10 weeks of tracking, two-thirds of the ice was consistently too high, or too low.

With each passing week, Grubola was determined to get the ice better. Today he’s got a tidy sheet of ice, and you can tell from the numbers. In the last 12 weeks of reporting, just two drill tests came back as being too high.

Mathematically, he’s back on the Dean’s list, with a 99% success rate!

Take a look:

Ice thickness measurements after Alec Grubola rebuilt the ice from scratch.
Drill test results from November 2020 to the 2nd week of January 2021. The two cells highlighted in blue indicate high spots, the rest are at optimum level.

A Voyage of Exploration

Tracking the ice levels is what Grubola calls his “Voyage of Exploration”. He wanted to see any trends and identify any techniques that might be helping or hurting the ice and putting those numbers into a spreadsheet helped him do that. “It’s turned out to be a nice visual representation of all the ice knowledge I’ve picked up along the way.”

I was wholly unprepared to take over the position. Fast forward to today, almost 2 years later. I feel completely confident driving and repairing our Olympia. Repairing and maintaining the ice, dealing with the beer league guys, and finding the right balance of pursuit of perfection and learning from mistakes. It’s been a brilliant voyage of exploration.

— Alec Grubola

Putting the Ice In

COVID-19 meant the ice was taken out at the end of May, 2020. With restrictions looking to open back up, the decision was made to put the ice back in in November. This was the first time Grubola had ever put the ice in, and he was excited about being able to start back on ice of his own. In his mind’s eye, he knew what that sheet of ice was going to look like before he began. Not only had he been thinking about it, but he knew where all the highs and lows were in the floor from the months and months of data he’d been collecting.

The ice at The Rink - fresh paint, lines and logos.
Fresh paint, lines and logos at The RRRink

When the ice was in, he posted this picture on the Ice Rink Professionals forum on Facebook, asking for feedback. His enthusiasm is evident.

It was a huge learning experience being lead on painting the ice for the first time. Not how I would have designed the logo, bisected by the red line but, so it goes. I’m weirdly excited to do this all again, and make it so much better.
– Alec Grubola

Tracking the data gives you an opportunity to see where you’re at, and set goals for where you’d like to be. Without data, there is nothing — no concrete evidence that what you’ve done is good, bad or indifferent. For Grubola, tracking the drill tests showed a desire to improve and learn. And by using that data and working with it, it has turned him into the ice man he is today.

It’s evident, he is. Just look at that ice!

If you’d like to see the entire spreadsheet, click here. It’s a perfect tool to help operations team work towards a level sheet of ice. (If you’d like to use it, go ahead. You have his permission!)

Alec Grubola on the ice at The Rrrink
Alex Grubola on the ice at The RRRinks