Ice master: A look into ice maintenance at the Fargo Regional

Cory Portner is the director of the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center at St. Cloud State University. This week, he's lending his talents to Scheels Arena and the NCAA tournament.

Cory Portner cleans off the dashers at Scheels Arena on Friday, March 24, 2023.
David Samson/The Forum

FARGO — Cory Portner's week at the NCAA Fargo Regional men's hockey tournament began Tuesday but on-ice preparations typically start months, maybe even years in advance.

Portner is the director of the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center at St. Cloud State University. This week, he's lending his talents to Scheels Arena, serving as the lead ice technician for the NCAA tournament's West Region.

The St. Cloud alumnus is no stranger to the gig, beginning his career as a facility manager for the USHL's Lincoln Stars before becoming a student facility manager and Zamboni driver for the Huskies in his college years.

Since then, Portner has held several operations positions, including director of operations for the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, membership and training director with the U.S. Ice Rink Association, and regional operations manager for Rink Management Services.

It's Portner's second time working the Fargo Regional.


"My main responsibility is just to monitor the field-of-play conditions, basically from the dasher boards in," Portner said. "And making sure that the field-of-play is commensurate with the talent and skill that we have here with the teams. But more importantly, to try to keep it as consistent as humanely possible, from the pre-skates to the practices and then all the way through the games for all of the teams."

Consistency is key to anything, which is why the process remains mostly the same from year to year.

"Honestly, the prep work begins weeks, and in some cases, months ahead of the tournaments," Portner said. "We've really kept in touch since the last tournament I was here for in 2021, where we were kind of going through some of the processes and getting some of the things, operationally speaking, maybe a little more regimented."

Nathan Kruize, Doug Mowat and Austin Phelps touch up the ice surface at Scheels Arena on Friday, March 24, 2023.
David Samson/The Forum

The full process began with the painting of the ice sheet last week with official NCAA tournament branding. After a week break and a pair of Fargo Force games in between, it was go-time for Portner and his team.

"The staff here really has the formula in place in terms of what we want to do operationally," Portner said. "I came back out Tuesday night, met with (Scheels Arena vice president of operations Tony Thiry) again, we get all of our forms in line and start doing our recordings and the detail things.

"Then we kind of map out an hour-by-hour or in some cases a day-by-day ice maintenance plan for everybody. We meet with the staff and the operators and the game ops guys and the shovel crew, we go over our plan and give guys a chance to ask questions. But after that, we pretty much just try to execute as much of the plan as possible and have some audibles queued up just in case."

When it's time for the puck to drop, it's Portner's time to lay back and assess the situation as it plays out.

"It's a huge team effort because there's a lot of behind-the-scenes things," Portner said. "From my standpoint, I'm kind of standing back and looking at the entire field-of-play. Watching the shovel crew, watching the net movers, trying to get a sense on how the puck is playing, how the pace of the game is, how the surface is holding up. Working with the operators and then just monitoring and recording temperatures."


Temperatures can have a massive impact on the playing surface if not monitored constantly.

"We do pre-game numbers usually a couple of hours ahead of the event," Portner said. "Then we do some numbers after warm-ups and then we shoot temps and all kinds of numbers all the way through the game.

"If you watch the behind-the-scenes operations, there's always somebody walking the field-of-play and it's typically not random. They're watching numbers and trying to predict and pattern what it looks like when we put 5,000 people in the building. It certainly changes variables and they change quickly. We try to predict and plan so that we can stay within an acceptable range. From the surface temp, to the ambient to the dew point. Then we adjust either our operational practices or we adjust some building items if needed."

Tony Thiry touches up the goal line on the ice surface as Nathan Kruize mans a broom at Scheels Arena on Friday, March 24, 2023.
David Samson/The Forum

Portner and the ops team must stay in constant communication with game officials and tournament organizers.

"During the game, we'll get a lot of direction from either the head of officials or in some cases from the organizing committee or tournament director," Portner said. "A lot of times, our discussions go there first so that we can make sure we're streamlining that communication."

Heading into Saturday's regional final between St. Cloud State and top-ranked, top-seeded Minnesota, Portner said things have seemingly gone off without a hitch.

"If we're doing things properly, no news in good news," Portner said. "Over the last few days here, we've heard nothing which is great. That's kind of where we want to be."

Portner may know a thing or two about quality ice sheets, but nobody knows more than the ones lacing up the skates.


"These kids are so talented," Portner said. "They're big, they're fast, when they pass the puck they know where they want to put it. A lot of times, we spend time watching the puck and the movement. Is it bouncing? Is it rolling? And you can't control that all the time, but those are some of the things we look at with the temperatures and snow removal. The shoveling is a big part, so that crew is a big part of the game operations and we just try to pay attention to those variables.

"I would say that when the passes are slow or when the puck can't keep up with the players, that's the most common thing we hear. There's a lot of variables that go into that, but it's pretty easy to see sometimes. These kids are so skilled and if they're faster than the movement of the puck, that's problematic."

Cory Portner adds water to a spot on the center ice logo at Scheels Arena on Friday, March 24, 2023.
David Samson/The Forum

Portner can't do it all on his own. He has a crew of 15 to 20 people working with him at any given time and credited the many more folks who make the tournament run smoothly.

"Tony Thiry is the director of operations here and I've been working directly with him," Portner said. "He's got two very experienced operators on the (Zambonis) who have been consistent through all the practices and games for us. He's got at least one (body) on each net, and then we have 12-14 on the shovel crew.

"And we're just a small part of the entire event. We're just doing the field-of-play. There's so many people behind the scenes doing front-of-house stuff, marketing and all of that. Operationally, if we do our job, and everybody else does their jobs and we get a lot of butts in the seats and the game moves at the pace we want it to, then it's a great experience for everyone."

Ryan Spitza joined The Forum in December 2021 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Marquette, Mich., a city of 20,000 on the southern shore of Lake Superior. He majored in multimedia journalism and minored in public relations at Northern Michigan University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in May 2019. While attending college, Spitza gained real-world experience covering high school and college athletics for both The Mining Journal and The North Wind.

Spitza can be reached at 701-451-5613 or Follow him on Twitter @ryspitza.
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