Iceman cometh early this winter

Good skating ice doesn't just happen. It's made with care. In ancient times, back in the 1960s, city workers opened the nearest fire hydrant and hosed the city rinks. That began to change in the 70s when the city outfitted a dump truck with an 80...

Good skating ice doesn't just happen. It's made with care.

In ancient times, back in the 1960s, city workers opened the nearest fire hydrant and hosed the city rinks. That began to change in the 70s when the city outfitted a dump truck with an 800-gallon water tank.

Now the city runs three trucks out each morning to make ice at four rinks (Garfield, Lincoln, Northside and Hilltop). New this year is a small rink across the footbridge from Robbins Island at the end of Country Club Drive.

The skateable ice is the earliest in recent memory. The first weekend of skating was Dec. 8-9, though it was another week before the warming houses opened.

Park and Rec director Dale Johnson kept temperature records until he retired and supervisor Dave Gort extended them until he retired in 2003.


Reviewing those records this week, Gort said the earliest opening he found was Dec. 10 in 1978. The goal is always to be open by Christmas.

City icemaker Ken Nelson said it's the fastest ice-on in his 13 years driving one of the water trucks.

He drives a one-ton Ford 150 with a 400-gallon box tank. His colleagues at Public Works, Galen Seehusen and Ralph Nelson drive similar rigs, though Nelson has a 700 gallon tank.

They leave the city garage shortly after 7 a.m. Long-time employee Cal Meiner has started an hour earlier sweeping the rinks of the previous day's ice shavings. A front-end loader or plow truck will be called after a snowstorm.

This day, the Garfield ice glistens in the morning sun.

"People have seen our rinks and commented that it looks like it's been done with a Zamboni," said Ken Nelson, who may empty 15 or even more tank loads in a single day at Garfield.

A key is the even distribution of water out of the spray bar on the back of truck. The driver operates a lever in the cab to open and close a hydraulic valve.

Edsel "Ed" Mrzena gets credit for coming up with the Willmar system for making ice. There was no handbook to follow. Ron Gilbertson, public works director, said Mrzena, who has been retired for about 20 years, was a crack mechanic with the additional talents of a blacksmith.


Jim Anderson and Wayne Hayunga, both retired, drove rink trucks for many years.

Anderson recalls the early days using a fire hose from the corner hydrant to make ice. The first tank trucks still had a cumbersome hydrant-type valve and external lever, he recalled.

"The hydraulically operated valves were a big improvement because they allow the driver to apply thick or thin coats of water depending on conditions (below 10 degrees the flow is lightened so the water doesn't freeze before it spreads).

Without question, Garfield is the main rink in town. Its history goes back to the 1940s. Willmar first hockey team (1945-47) played here; the modern program played its first varsity games outdoors at Garfield in 1972 cheered by fans ringing the boards standing in the snow banks.

New lights were installed last summer bringing powerful illumination to both the hockey rink and the general rink.

The city council has asked the school board (the rinks are on school property) for permission to dig up the playground to create a holding pond to catch storm water from a major rain storm.

For now Willmar has some of the best December ice anywhere.

Perhaps the Cardinal hockey teams difficulty scoring can be blamed on this century's Missouri-like winters. With so many days at plus 35-degrees there hasn't been consistent ice for over a dozen years. Bad ice? Might as well play a video game today.


The leading playmakers and scorers in Cardinal history grew up playing outdoor hockey day and night. Rink rats like the Nelson brothers (Barry and Brian) and Lee Smith at Lincoln; the three Marciniaks, Dan Tollefson, Nate Larson and Matt Breen at Garfield; Dan Devenport, Lee and Tracy Engstrom and Darin Strand at Northside,

To their generation the outdoor rink was a second home. But in these time it seems many youngsters have traded their hockey stick for joy stick -- a habit even good ice can't break.

On the Fly:

Brainerd High School, has the largest enrollment in the outstate. Nonetheless its boys hockey team is paired with both Pillager and Pierz. Willmar has long felt it didn't need New London-Spicer kids in its programs. They could use them now; after this year the numbers will start dropping at the boys varsity hockey level. From the start, it would have made sense for NLS kids to come south for hockey, not go north. Willmar, Spicer and New London are so interwoven geographically, commercially and socially, a cooperative hockey program would seem a natural.

- Lee Smith, the long-time coach of the Eden Prairie Eagle hockey program, was part of the highest-scoring line in Cardinal boys hockey history along with Brian Nelson and Brett Erdmann (1983-84). Smith's Eagles (5-2) got a big win in the Lake Conference Saturday when they defeated Burnsville 3-2.

- Six months after suffering serious head injuries in a motorcycle crash, All-Area athlete Justin Schwieger has got clearance to return to work part-time and to lift up to 30 pounds. He plans to enroll at Ridgewater College second semester.

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