All eyes on the ice: Ewasko seeks ice-making perfection as trials curlers head to Saskatoon
"There's more to it than just watching us go up and down the ice."
It’s Sunday morning in Saskatoon, and Greg Ewasko walks on ice, applying a thin stream of black paint into quarter-inch grooves.
That paint separates four curling rings, and gives them definition. The shelf life for that paint and those rings is two weeks. They’ll find great meaning in that short existence, helping two teams find their Olympic destiny, before getting liquidated and erased.
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Ewasko is the head ice technician at the Canadian Olympic curling trials, running Saturday through Nov. 28 at SaskTel Centre. He was a competitive junior curler many years ago, and one day arrived at this realization: If you can’t beat ’em, make ice for ’em.
“Basically,” he says, “after I couldn’t get into men’s provincials out of Manitoba with my brother.”
He’d been making ice on a part-time basis since he was 17 years old, before moving into it full-time. The Selkirk, Man. kid was a rink-rat, shooting rocks on the local sheets during lunch breaks and school spares. They decided that since he was there so much, they might as well teach him the care and feeding of pebbled ice, and he took to it quickly.
Ice-making, in the curling world, is science and wizardry and accumulated wisdom. Every inch of the playing surface is scrutinized, not just by people who work on it, but by men and women who play on it.
Ewasko works in hockey venues, turning hockey ice into curling ice, and he shakes his head a wee bit.
“NHL players should (be choosier),” he says. “They’re supposed to be the best hockey players in the world, and they play on the (crappiest) ice. I have watched many times, the guys go out with the Zamboni and it’s horrible.”
Curling ice, on the other hand, might be the world’s most fussed-over playing surface.
“We bring in our own water system to purify the water,” Ewasko says. “When we’re scraping the ice, we don’t ride it like a Zamboni. There’s a guy out front, making sure the blade is cutting straight and true, all the time, and we’re measuring by ounces or grams the amount of snow we clip off the top for the rocks to glide on. There’s more to it than just watching us go up and down the ice.
‘”All the technology that’s out there for ice-making now … before, you’d maybe get 23-second ice and you thought that was pretty quick. Now, we’re striving for 26. That’s insanely fast. Before, you got 2 1/2 feet of curl and you were pretty pleased with that. Now, they’re expecting 5 1/2 feet of curl with a little bit of finish at the end. I would die to play on stuff like this now.”
The ice-making crew in Saskatoon includes four national technicians, led by Ewasko, and a half-dozen volunteers. They started work this past Saturday — shot the hockey ice with a laser level, determined it wasn’t perfect, and spent the rest of the day flooding and scraping to level it out.
The next day, at 4:30 a.m., they started with the white ice paint. Then the lines. Days went by, the ice was built up and doted over, moving as close to perfection as the crew could get it.
It will be verbally dissected on national television, discussed at length among those who play on it.
“How’s the ice?” is a familiar refrain in this sport.
“They’re expecting the usual parameters: 5 1/2 feet of curl, with 25, 26-second ice,” Ewasko said. “If they don’t get it, I hear about it. We have a relationship with most of the curlers that are coming here; we do have a relationship outside of curling events. And I have no problem taking criticism.
“There’s also praise. I would probably say it’s a 50-50 split. The unfortunate thing is there’s always a loser. Sometimes it’s not their fault, but sometimes it’s not my fault either.”
He’s quick to answer when asked for his most memorable feedback.
” ‘I don’t know how much better you can make it.’ I got that in the Olympic trials for mixed doubles in Portage La Prairie, and I got that in Kingston for the Brier,” he says. “And I’m trying to repeat that, all the time.”
Ewasko has learned from a long line of ice-makers, starting with the men he first worked with in Selkirk, to Hans Wuthrich, Eric Montford, Dave Merklinger, Jamie Bourassa.
When the latter stepped back from his Curling Canada duties a couple of years ago, Ewasko — who also operates Greg Ewasko Ice Making Services — was hired as the head technician.
He spent several weeks in Calgary this past winter, working in a COVID-19 bubble as they played their biggest events.
Masks were mandatory. So was distancing, and frequent COVID-19 tests. But the biggest, and worst, dynamic for Ewasko was the empty seats.
“The curlers were there, the ice was there, the rocks were there,” he says. “But no one was there to cheer them on, and that’s the part I miss the most.
“I like walking down the ice, and some guy will ask me a question. I have no problem stopping and chit-chatting. It was a long three months in Calgary, without anybody there.”
That won’t be an issue in Saskatoon. Masked and vaccinated fans will be in the stands, watching curlers slide, sweep and shoot on the ice made by Ewasko and his crew.
“I feel nervous the first couple of rocks down the ice, in the first game,” says Ewasko. “Once I can actually see what’s happening … if it’s going really well, I calm right down, and away we go. If it’s not going so well, we’ll just keep working at it until we get it perfect.”