Workers ready Skating Ribbon and McCormick Tribune Ice Rink

By B. David Zarley | Staff Writer

November 15, 2017

The ice comes under the cover of darkness. Layer upon layer, thin sheets of water are laid down hot by Zamboni ice resurfacers. Freed from the deleterious effects of direct sunlight, the layers accumulate until they make a fine sheet. Come 12 p.m. on November 17, visitors will be able to lace up their skates and feel the bite of their blades as another skating season begins. 

Both the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park’s Skating Ribbon are managed and maintained by Westrec, a marina management company that also contracts with Chicago Harbors. Before Westrec begins to lay ice, the glycol cooling systems running under the rinks are checked to make sure the chillers, compressors and piping that carries the glycol are running properly. The glycol system takes one to two days to cool the surface of the rink.

This maintenance process begins in the fall, according to Westrec Executive Vice President Scott Stevenson. “When the weather gets cool enough, we’ll then start to build ice,” he said. Temperatures should be below freezing at night and no higher than 40 degrees during the day, according to Stevenson.

After the surfaces are completely coated with these initial layers of water, the ice gets painted white with water soluble paint. White is not merely an aesthetic choice. “The white paint helps reflect the sunlight and helps us maintain the ice during the skating season,” Stevenson said. While the ice can withstand spring-like temperatures—55 to 60 degrees on the Ribbon or even a balmy 65 degrees at McCormick Tribune—sunshine is the enemy.

After the paint is applied, the Zamboni lays down up to 30 layers of ice, putting two to three inches between skaters and the paint. In addition to creating a smoother surface—the best ice, Stevenson explained, comes by laying hot water—the thin layers that the Zamboni lays even allows for ice to build on the slanted and uneven grade of the Ribbon. With problem-spot shaving blades, regular Zamboni passes are the majority of the maintenance the rink and Ribbon require during the season.

Sophie Slotnik (left), Dillon Johnston and Isa-belle Pihlträd skate at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in winter 2016. Photo by Elizabeth Johnston.

“It’s kind of a wintertime tradition for many people to come downtown and skate in Millennium Park,” said Kenya Merritt, deputy commissioner at the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Merritt says Loop skating has long been the norm in Chicago. Before the Millennium Park rinks were open, downtown skating took place at a rink that was located where Block 37 now stands, 108 N. State St.

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