It’s always been Kevin Wheeler’s dream to make ice for the NHL.
And at the beginning of the month, the icemaker at Fuller Lake Arena fulfilled that dream in one of the biggest games of the year when he worked as part of the ice crew for the NHL Heritage Classic in Vancouver.
The Senators came from behind to beat the Canucks 4-2 in front of more than 54,000 fans Sunday, March 2 at BC Place Stadium, and Wheeler, who lives in Chemainus, was part of the ice crew that built the ice leading up to the game, kept the ice surface clean during the game and took the ice down afterwards.
This amazing opportunity came after Wheeler received a call in November from a friend from the NHL with whom he had volunteered during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, who wanted to know if he was interested in going over to Vancouver for the Heritage Classic.
Wheeler says his immediate reaction was “wow? seriously? and definitely.”
“I was proud and honoured they would consider getting me to do it and join the team,” he said.
Wheeler went over to Vancouver Feb. 23 and started working Feb. 24, joining the NHL ice crew of 18, who came from all over Canada. Leading up to the game, he worked 13-hour night shifts building the ice rink on a plywood base, after another crew built the boards, glass and logos during the day.
“It was very enjoyable,” he said. “It was very hard, probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but it was knowing I was building an ice rink for an NHL game at BC Place. And also knowing there was a game on Sunday and you had to get it done; you enjoy yourself, but it’s also hard work. The crew was really good; we bonded really quickly.”
Wheeler says it’s hard to pick a favourite part of the work, but it was probably building the ice.
“Once the logos were in and we were building the ice, I think that was probably my favourite because it looked like it would look on Sunday,” he said. “I think that once we got into later in the week and I was building ice onto the logos, you could see the rink.”
Throughout the week leading up to the game, Wheeler and the rest of the crew built the floor, hooked up the refrigeration truck and ran pipes from that to feed the rink and, as the game got closer, made sure they had floods in the ice.
On the day of the game, he arrived at BC Place at 10 a.m. They did a couple more floods on the ice, and once the game started at 1 p.m., Wheeler was part of the pit crew. He made sure the ice resurfacers were topped up with water and fuel and all rinsed out and were ready to go for intermission. As well, he would help shovel the whole ice surface and their end and then clean it up at the gate and move the snow, and they were all ready if anything else needed attention.
“That was great,” said Wheeler. “I was on the benches and thinking ‘wow, I’m here working with the NHL ice crew’ and everything was going off really well. I think the big thing is we really were a team.”
Wheeler stayed in Vancouver after the game, and they broke the ice down and dismantled the boards, glass and piping, along with another workforce crew that came over to help them.
“It’s neat learning tips and tricks from other people and making new friendships with people who do the same thing as I do,” he said. “We obviously all care about the ice and giving a good product and player safety. The result of the game was really irrelevant to me; I wanted it to be a good game and a good atmosphere for the fans. I think everyone had a good time, never mind the score.”
Working this NHL game is something Wheeler has been building up to for as long as he can remember.
“This is what I do; it’s what my dad used to do,” he said. “I’d go help my dad from the time I was a kid. I’d go and help him clean up; he’d pay me with hockey cards, and I’d clean the bleachers. I’d go and sweep the boards before they put the brooms on Zambonis, and goal judge and time keep. It’s really been a lifelong dream to work with the NHL.”
Wheeler has been working for the Municipality of North Cowichan for almost eight years, and he’s been an icemaker for 13 years. In 2010, he was chosen as a volunteer for the Winter Olympic hockey games, and he drove the Olympia ice resurfacer during games and built ice in the mornings.