Record: 52 – 20 – 10
During the Jan. 31 National Hockey League game between the Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning — a tilt the home side won 3-1 — Jets forward Matt Hendricks logged just over nine minutes of icetime, while his linemates Brandon Tanev and Kyle Connor clocked in at 10:19 and 10:26 respectively.
Compare that to Douglas Arnold, Emily Carey and Casey Gall, each of whom spent roughly 14 minutes buzzing around Bell MTS Place's ice surface, during that same contest.
Who are Arnold, Carey and Gall, you ask?
They’re part of the 11-person, on-ice crew that’s responsible for shovelling the entire, 200-foot-by-85-foot playing surface during breaks in the action at Jets home games, so superstars such as Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine have a smooth track to weave their magic on.
"I never really thought of it that way but yeah, I guess we are out there more than some of the players, on certain nights," says Arnold, who’s been a member of the unit — they call themselves "the squad" — ever since the Jets returned to Winnipeg, in time for the 2011-12 season.
As mandated by the league, Arnold and his cohorts vacate their post in the southwest corner of the rink three times per period, as close to the 14-, 10- and six-minute marks as possible. Fast on their skates, they have just over 90 seconds to scoop up approximately two 40-gallon receptacles’ worth of slush and ice shavings per shift, before play resumes.
"There’s a light by the penalty box area that gets turned on to indicate TV timeouts," Arnold explains, "and when the two guys manning the gates see it turn red, they open the doors, stand back and away we go."
If you’ve never attended an NHL game in person, you might not be aware ice-cleaning teams are a thing. Because they perform their duties while viewers at home are being treated to extended commercial breaks (yes, we get it, Tim Hortons now serves its sandwiches on a croissant), they generally aren’t caught on-camera unless they’re tackling another of their assignments — fetching caps that have been tossed from the stands, to toast a hat trick.
Although little exists in the way of research, it seems ice teams came into being midway through the 2000-01 NHL campaign, after a league executive reportedly suggested rink personnel do something about the buildups of ice fragments that were slowing down play along the boards. In subsequent seasons, that directive was expanded to include the goal creases, then the offensive zones and finally, in time for the start of the 2015-16 campaign, the full playing area.
Arnold chuckles, observing some goalies prefer a scuffed-up crease, and, for a spell, refused to budge from their net until referees bade them to the bench along with forwards and defensemen, so ice teams could complete their work.
The approach to the task varies from franchise to franchise. While some crews, like Winnipeg’s, are all business, and dress conservatively in team-issued sweat jackets coupled with black yoga pants for women or black track pants for men, other clubs’ squadrons — many of which are all-female — sport skimpy outfits more suited to titillating ticket-holders than tidying trapezoids. (Without going into too much detail, we’ll direct you instead to www.totalprosports.com, where you can punch "15 hottest NHL ice crews" in the search engine, to get a gander at what we’re talking about.)
Nelson Nenka is the ice-team’s in-game supervisor. He got his start in the operations department with the original Jets, back when you would have been presumed to have taken an elbow to the head if you proposed giving the Winnipeg Arena’s ice surface a quick swipe in the middle of a period.
"For sure, this job didn’t exist in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that was a different era, altogether," he states. "The players nowadays are bigger and faster. They skate way harder and are always starting and stopping, which kicks up tons more snow than back in the day, when some guys were just out there, floating around."
One of Nenka’s responsibilities is helping hire new team members. He and his associates don’t take applicants’ word for it, mind you, when they state they’re comfortable on a pair of blades, during the interview process.
"After we sit down with them, we have an on-ice tryout where we get them to skate around the face-off circles," he says. "Once we’ve established they’re strong on their feet, we hand them a shovel and tell them to try it again. What we’ve learned is you can be a great hockey player or figure skater but leaning forward and pushing 10 pounds of snow with a 48-inch-wide shovel probably isn’t something you’re used to. I had one guy two years ago who was a fantastic skater but the moment I gave him the shovel, down he went."
How efficient is the Jets crew? Well, besides post-game "report cards" filled out by the referees and linesmen that almost always result in a score of "excellent," Nenka says the NHL’s head office once requested video of their "flying V" formation, which sees team members symmetrically spread out like a flock of geese, to better collect whatever debris is plowed aside by the person directly in front of them.
"The way I understand it, the way we do things here kind of launched how the rest of the league was told to do it, too," Nenka says with a hint of pride.
Emily Carey’s usual position is at the front of the V, where she sets a torrid pace for those fanned out behind her. Carey, in her fifth season with the team, says hers is a perfect part-time job, not only because it offers a front-row vantage point of the action, but also because she knows exactly when she’ll be working, months ahead of time.
"The home schedule usually comes out in July so it’s pretty easy to map things out around school and stuff," says Carey, a University of Manitoba student who plans to graduate as an occupational therapist. "Plus, because we now have another group of people who do this same thing at Moose games, it’s not too difficult to switch shifts, if one of us has an exam or anything."
Carly Mastromonaco, who’s been part of the ice crew since 2014, says flying around the rink some 40 games a year affords her a bit of a workout, in addition to a steady paycheque.
"I’m taking my bachelor of science at U of M and between school and work, it’s not always easy to get to the gym," says the former ringette player, laughingly remarking "oh, for sure," when a scribe muses it must have been difficult to fit her surname on the back of a jersey, during her playing days. "And because I’m small, it’s not always easy to push the snow — especially that first scrape of the period — so yeah, I’m definitely huffing and puffing by the time I get back here."
Because Mastromonaco is positioned at the tail-end of the formation, she’s the person responsible for manicuring the ice along the boards, directly in front of the teams’ benches - meaning she sometimes gets — how can we put this gently? — a mouthful from the players.
"A few games ago, I was going by just as one of the guys — I can’t remember who — was taking a drink of water from his bottle," she says. "Sure enough, the second I skated past him, he spit it out, catching me flush in the face. I’m pretty sure I heard him yell ‘sorry,’ but that’s OK, it’s not like he did it on purpose."
Shane From, introduced by Nenka as the speediest skater of the bunch, says he couldn’t believe his luck when he landed a spot on the team, a month before the Jets 2.0’s inaugural season. (A bit like the TV show The Bachelor, where being granted a rose means you’re safe for another week, if you’re handed a shovel at the end of ice crew tryouts, you know you’ve survived the cut.)
From says he and his co-workers adopt a strict, don’t-speak-unless-spoken-to approach when it comes to interacting with NHL stars, but admits he often catches himself thinking, "I can’t believe I’m literally two feet away from Sidney Crosby or Carey Price."
"The other crazy thing is realizing just how big some of these guys are," he continues, speaking loud enough to be heard over the pre-game, player introductions. "I remember one of my first games, reaching down to pick up a bucket of pucks after warmups and seeing (Boston Bruins defenceman Zdeno) Chara right beside me. I swear, on skates it looks like he’s 10 feet tall.
From, who fell in love with hockey "when I was, like, six months old," says walking through the door at Bell MTS Place feels less like reporting for work than being paid to have Jets season tickets.
"I also work at a drop-in centre for kids, and they think what I do here is the coolest thing, ever. Seriously, I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.