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This Colorado Springs ice master is Olympic hockey's unsung hero

February 9, 2018 Updated: February 12, 2018 at 2:24 pm
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Don Moffat poses Thursday, February 8, 2018 at center ice of the Gangneung Hockey Center in Pyeongchang, S. Korea where he is serving as the Winter Games' Chief Ice Master. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

As Olympic ice hockey continues through the month, Don Moffatt will be watching differently from fellow fans back home in Colorado Springs. 

He'll be in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where he's the Winter Games' chief ice master. And he won't be paying much attention to the scoreboard.

Moffatt will want to see the puck fly smoothly between the stripes and logos he and his team painted on the firm layer of ice 2 centimeters beneath the glossy top sheet. Nowhere on the 200-by-100-foot surface should the puck stall or bounce, signifying some miscalculation Moffatt made with water or temperature when building the ice.

He'll be watching the blades, as they also might reveal some small error that is anything but small to him. He'll want to see faint lines left behind. The player should simply glide. He or she should not be able to cut into the ice.

And Moffatt will be listening. "The high-pitched scratch, like scratching a chalkboard? Yeah, that's not good."

While all eyes will be on the Olympians clashing to be the planet's best, Moffat will be out of sight, in a match with himself to prove that he's the best at creating their playing field.

"There's just a passion among the people good at it," Moffatt says, speaking to the underground community of arena makers. "They all have the same goal: to create that absolutely perfect sheet."

Don Moffat poses Thursday, February 8, 2018 at center ice of the Gangneung Hockey Center in Pyeongchang, S. Korea where he is serving as the Winter Games’ Chief Ice Master. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

He carries 31 years of experience to South Korea, his latest duty being at the Pepsi Center. For the Avalanche's home games, Moffatt leaves the Springs by 8:30 a.m. to start the all-day pursuit of achieving "super ice." The game ends, the crowd clears, and he hops on his Zamboni, driving the resurfacing machine deep into the night and returning to the Springs about 16 hours after he left.

The Zamboni is "the fun part," he says. But in Pyeongchang, between his making technical decisions and managing a group of non-English speakers, there's little Zamboni time.

Now he's the boss after working as an ice technician at two previous Winter Olympics.

"There's very little hockey knowledge or hockey background here. It's just not a big sport," Moffatt says. And that is what's caused him the most stress. He spent the past two years flying back and forth to South Korea, educating.

Teaching the trade is what he did when he moved to the Springs in 2002 to join USA Hockey. He shared tips at rinks all around North America, eventually catching the eyes of the NHL, which hired him to standardize the way ice was made and managed across the league.

So there he was at hockey's highest level, the man who out of college thought he'd be teaching high school science or P.E.

But the game always tugged Moffatt back. Growing up in Canada, he and his siblings would skate on the rink their dad made in the backyard until their mother called them in for bed.

He was the kid either last to make the team or last to be cut, but that never stopped him from playing, all the way to 1987 when he lived in Arizona, playing pickup at the local rink. He left his job as a restaurant manager to help run that rink, where he first learned the ins and outs of ice making and the addicting challenge of perfection.

Before then, "I was like almost 100 percent of every hockey player," he says. "They just think you throw down some water and go for a skate."

It took his team five or six days to transform each of Pyeongchang's four arenas. The process begins with setting the refrigeration system beneath the concrete floor at 10 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the building's temperature. Water is sprayed as a mist, rather than a pour that would build too much air within the layers, making the ice easily choppable.

The surfaces will need constant maintenance between games. And all the while, Moffatt will hope against disaster, such as that time at the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. A series of blunders formed deep and wide holes all over the ice - 24 minutes before the opening faceoff.

With slush and freezing CO2 extinguishers, he and the crew covered the mess before any broadcasting began. Only in the event of disaster would people like Moffatt be widely discovered.

So success means remaining unknown.

"Leaving home, all my friends said, 'Well, I hope I see you on TV,'" Moffatt says. "I was like, 'Oh, gosh, please, I hope not!'"

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