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An ice maker's art

Colwood resident sought the world over for efficient ice techniques
photocredit: Andrei Fedorov
sooke harbour
The coastal waters off Sooke are known for an abundance of salmon and halibut

Art Sutherland knows a language few others understand, never mind speak. His is the language of ice, one that has taken him to six continents and three Winter Olympic Games.

As a world-renowned hockey and curling ice maker, Sutherland is typically never without his tool bag — a doctor's kit of sorts containing instruments that allow him to create perfect, customized ice, and diagnose and treat lacklustre skating and curling surfaces.

Just as his tools are ever present, so too is an airline ticket abroad and his passport. "I usually have a plane ticket booked, but this is the first time in a while I don't have one," says the long-time Colwood resident and president of Victoria-based Accent Refrigeration Systems.

That doesn't mean he'll be grounded for long though.

Sutherland is only home for a few weeks having just returned from a trip to South Korea, where he was maintaining refrigeration systems for the Asia Pacific Cup curling bonspiel.

At Accent Refrigeration Systems, Sutherland and his business partner, Greg Hillman, and their 12 full-time employees custom design and manufacture computerized refrigeration systems that create perfect ice — Sutherland's motto.

They've installed their cutting edge energy-efficient systems at rinks in the Greater Victoria area, the United States and South Africa, but Sutherland's expertise has also taken him to the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Salt Lake City, Utah and Turin, Italy.

At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, he created a 30-metre-long by five-metre-wide ice wall to serve as a ceremonial backdrop at the Richmond Ozone. He also built a curling refrigeration unit at the Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Centre.

Having such an ice master in their own West Shore backyard was an extraordinary opportunity for the City of Langford, and proved to be the key to building a new $14.1-million Sportsplex arena/bowling alley at City Centre Park, slated for completion June 2011.

"Of any partner in the world, I'm just glad he partnered with us," says Langford Mayor Stew Young. "I knew Art thinks out of the box a bit."

In exchange for designing and manufacturing the arena's state-of-the-art refrigeration system, and maintaining the ice, Sutherland is moving his business into the complex. His involvement in the Sportsplex reduced the facility price tag by $500,000.

"With the facility Art's giving us, it'll be the greenest arena in Canada," says Langford Coun. Lanny Seaton, chair of the City's parks, recreation and culture committee.

"It's good for them and it's nice for me," says the ice doctor, who will soon look out over his signature ice sheet from his new upstairs office window. Downstairs, Accent staff will manufacture ice-making equipment. The arena will serve as a training ground for arena operators who will come from around the world to learn what Sutherland does best: create perfect ice and efficiently operate arenas.

"When people walk into our office, they're going to walk into what we do," he explains. "We're going to make it the best ice environment for that reason. We're not following the market, we're leading the market."

Whether creating ice art or recreational ice surfaces, Sutherland has done much to develop the technical ice language he is fluent in, going so far as to write the rules on the niche subject.

"There were no reference manuals to go from," says Sutherland, author of six technical manuals. "It's such a small industry. There are only 8,000 ice rinks on the planet, so there aren't a lot of resources available."

That, and what he calls the "perfect storm of events inside the ice industry," explains why Sutherland and Hillman have spent much of their time on airplanes and in arenas during the past two years.

"We've just been swamped with work on pretty well every continent," Sutherland explains. That work load has him busy 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., at least six days a week. Despite being away from home often, Sutherland has been able to mix business with family life. His wife Teresa works as a part-time bookkeeper at the company. Sutherland has taken one or more of his four daughters with him to one international locale after another.

"As a parent, that's a great opportunity to spend time with them and show them the world," explains Stephen Whipp, who was Sutherland's Colwood neighbour for more than a decade.

He recalls Sutherland introducing himself in the early years as a refrigerator mechanic servicing soda pop coolers. It was some time before Whipp, first vice-president of the WestShore Chamber of Commerce, discovered his neighbour had far outgrown his initial job description.

"He didn't let on it changed," he says, a fact that is extraordinary considering Sutherland is now a leader in his field. "You're never really sure which continent he's on, remarkable especially for a guy who probably still sees himself as a refrigerator mechanic."

The Science of Green Ice

Art Sutherland's energy-efficient ice refrigeration systems work in a kind of green loop, in which wasted energy is harnessed and used elsewhere in the building, cutting costs and reducing a facility's carbon footprint — ideal for skating and curling facilities which typically are energy guzzlers.

"It's really gaining traction now," Sutherland says of the green move to reclaim energy in complexes such as swimming pools and arenas.

Refrigeration systems that keep arena ice frozen generate heat, similar to the back of a household refrigerator. The excess heat is usually blown out of the arena – a waste of energy and money. Harnessing the arena's wasted energy and reusing it, combined with free ice maintenance, represents an annual 20- to 30-per-cent cost savings at Langford's new City Centre Sportsplex, says Langford Mayor Stew Young.

Sutherland's system at the new arena will capture 100 per cent of excess heat for use either in the facility to heat floors, the air and water for showers, or in the nearby Westhills residential neighbourhood.

The extra heat can be channelled through a series of subterranean geothermal pipes that connect to the Westhills development. The transferred heat, in addition to warm air captured underneath the turf of neighbouring Bear Mountain Stadium and field No. 2, will help warm the new homes.

"It's like geothermal on steroids," Sutherland says of the underground system. And when the ice is out for the summer, the arena's refrigeration system will air condition the bowling alley.

"The second biggest cost of operating these buildings is energy," Sutherland says. "What once was a liability can now be a community asset."

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International Ice:

2010 Winter Olympics: Vancouver, B.C.

– created ceremonial backdrop ice wall at Richmond Ozone; built curling refrigeration unit at Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Centre

2006 Winter Olympics: Turin, Italy

– created an ice display for the cultural Olympiad; plus an Inuksuk more than two metres tall for Canada House

2002 Winter Olympics: Salt Lake City, Utah

– built ice surfaces

1998 Winter Olympics: Nagano, Japan

– taught arena operators

Local Ice:

Bear Mountain Arena

City Centre Park (opening June 2011)

CFB Esquimalt Wurtele Arena

G.R. Pearkes Arena

Victoria Curling Club

Facts and Figures

Langford's Sportsplex

Name: City Centre Park Sportsplex

Cost: $14.1 million split three ways between Langford and provincial and federal governments

Features: 500-seat arena with five dressing rooms and an outdoor skating river, as well as a 20-lane, 10-pin bowling alley

Completion date: June, 2011