FORT CHIPEWYAN, Alta. -- The familiar sights are all there -- the sticks, the pucks, the hockey-related rubble of small-town rinks across Canada.
But instead of the familiar scrape of steel on ice, the only sounds from a scrimmage at Fort Chipewyan's new hockey facility will be from the players. When it opened earlier this month, the Archie Simpson Arena became what is believed to be the only NHL-sized hockey rink in North America on which the players skate on plastic.
"It's almost a dead quiet, until you stop," said Glen Smith, the town's director of public works. "It is different."
You wouldn't think ice would be a problem in this town of about 1,000 in Alberta's northeastern corner. After all, it was an overabundance of snow that caused the town's original rink to collapse in 2004.
But Smith points out that a traditional ice plant for year-round skating would have cost the town anywhere between $1.5 and $3 million, with perhaps another $300,000 a year for maintenance and staffing.
The plastic surface, built by Florida-based Global Synthetic Ice, cost $550,000 installed. Maintenance is minimal, and after 10 years you can just flip it over and skate on the other side.
Such skating surfaces are used in sporting goods stores and are increasingly common at pleasure skating rinks, but Fort Chipewyan's is the first in North America to have blue lines, faceoff circles and goalie creases.
"(In other rinks) we tried painting on the lines," said company head Perry Boskus. "They just scraped off. This is the first one that incorporates all the lines right into the skating surface."
Skating on the non-ice ice takes a little adjustment, Smith said.
"You have to get your sense of balance on it. On ice, your skates dig right in. When you skate on this plastic surface, it's not the same sensation. It takes about five minutes."
But it's basically the same experience.
"You can stop, you can turn. The puck's a little slower."
The fact that there isn't as much glide as there is over frozen water just gives you a better workout -- and it improves your technique. Ice offers enough margin of error to hide flaws in skating technique, said Boskus, a former competitive figure and speedskater.
"To do a spin on ice, if you don't hit it right you can save it," he said. "With this surface, you have to hit it perfectly."
The plastic ice may spread. Several small towns have already contacted Fort Chipewyan to ask what they think of their new rink.
Boskus sees a lot of potential for his product. Just landing at the Edmonton airport on his way to Fort Chipewyan, he counted nine iceless rinks ringed by hockey boards.
"It seems like they have a lot of arenas outside," he said. "Why don't they use this?"
Buyers can even get different colours. Smith describes Fort Chipewyan's as "off-white."
Still, plastic is likely to remain second choice for a while.
Now that it's finally cold enough in Fort Chipewyan, town workers are flooding the skating surface with water. To make ice.
-- The Canadian Press