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July 30, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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On the Rink of Disaster: Wellington’s Would-Be Outdoor Ice Hockey Game

A Facebook message from a stranger asking you for something at 1:42 am is never worth replying to.

I should have known this at the time, but thanks to a less-than-a-week-before-my-contract-exam mix of insomnia, apathy, and cheerful nihilism, I happily agreed to help build what could have been the largest temporary hockey rink in the Southern Hemisphere.

Some context: for the last year and a bit, I’ve been a somewhat enthusiastic ice hockey fan.  Maybe more than that, judging by the faraway looks I get from anyone I try to convert to the sport, but I digress. The sport’s obscure status in New Zealand means that if anything vaguely hockey-related appears here, I’m interested.

It was with people like me in mind that somebody had announced a series of hockey games to be played in Auckland, Wellington, and Queenstown. The USA was to play Canada: “THE GREATEST RIVALRY IN SPORTS HISTORY,” according to the advertising. Despite the fact that the players were mostly minor league or ex-minor league professionals playing for teams that were unaffiliated with the actual American and Canadian hockey teams, it was still exciting. My Mum (bless her) got the family tickets to the game in Auckland.

I had heard through various channels that the organisers were looking for volunteers to help them build the rink in Wellington, which was to be on the field in Westpac Stadium.  The work was unpaid, but volunteers were to be bribed with tickets or a game jersey.

Being a hockey jersey fiend and seeking escape from the horrors of contract law, I put down my interest on a Facebook post , and a few days later, there I was. I arrived at the stadium at about half past eight. When I got there the some 50 people were milling around. I found someone in a fluoro jacket who seemed to be in charge. After introducing myself and signing some papers, I was given the most memorable safety briefing of my life.

“Are you a retard? Just don’t be a retard.”

To my privileged soul, the absolute lack of any attempt at political correctness was either alarming in a refreshing way or refreshing in an alarming way; I couldn’t decide. I was so stunned I almost forgot to answer. Suddenly conscious that I wasn’t coming off particularly bright with my jaw on the floor, I collected myself enough to meekly reply in the negative.

Fluoro jacket seemed satisfied, and I went off to build an ice rink.

The workforce at the stadium was split into two rough groups. The first were volunteer hockey fans like me. We were unpaid and generally knew very little about the process of building an outdoor ice rink.  Many were Canadian expats. The second group was made up of stadium security. They were paid by the hour and also knew very little about the process.

Tensions lingered between the two groups all day – the volunteers thought the security staff were apathetic and lazy, and the security staff thought the volunteers were pushy and impatient.  As with most disputes in human history, it mostly came down to the catering. The security staff had allegedly made off with several crates of Canadian confectionery meant for the volunteers the night before.  Our lunch was thus jealously guarded from them, which rightly or wrongly caused several of them to scarper for lunch at crucial parts of the day.

The ground on which the rink was to be built was levelled, and our job was to make a shallow pool for the ice to freeze in.  The entire bottom of the rink was covered in runs of plastic sheeting, and then it was our task to keep the whole thing watertight with gaffer tape. Someone made murmurings that the tape was the wrong brand, oblivious of the absurdity of the thing.  The bottom was so fragile that those walking on it could only be in socks.

That took several hours. Once it was done, we began to roll out six-foot wide, white coils on the plastic that would be flooded with coolant then covered in water. Unrolling the coils often tore the plastic sheeting. The coils were attached to a section of thick piping; every time another coil was laid down the pipes had to be sealed together. It was a slow process – it took hours before the rink was covered.

The next task was putting up “the boards” – the barrier that surrounds a hockey rink. This was made up of hundreds of heavy barriers which had to be aligned in the correct order and bolted together.  From the advertisements for 50c wings and Tallahassee Community Hospital stickered onto them, the boards originally came from Florida, but had apparently been held in shipping containers in Adelaide for the last decade. This meant that some of them were warped, and it was evening by the time they were put together.

From there we were promised that the rink would be flooded and freezing would begin at 6pm, but nothing happened.  The security staff went home. The volunteers stayed, as we were waiting for any information about our compensation for the day, and so we loitered idly for about an hour.  Eventually a stroppy Australian directed us to start peeling the advertising decals off the boards.

Thus began one of the dullest tasks of my short life. The decals were old and brittle, and a particular sign for Bud Light was exceptionally so. It took a full hour to peel off the sign, centimetre by centimetre. While we busied ourselves with this task, I talked with a senior volunteer about compensation and the slow progress of the work – it was pushing 8 o’clock, and while the coils were being filled with coolant, flooding seemed a long way off.  He confided in us that the whole operation seemed badly organised and poorly executed, with the organisers apparently repeatedly promising what they couldn’t deliver. The prospect of a free hockey jersey seemed very far away, but I felt committed to the cause, out of a mix of misguided loyalty and schadenfreude.

As if to illustrate the man’s point about poor execution, a pipe burst, spraying bright pink coolant everywhere. This was bad. The coolant was also an anti-freezing agent, and it had to be removed or the water would not freeze. If the water didn’t begin to freeze in the next few hours, the chances of a hockey game became very slim. To further add to troubles, it also leaked onto the pristine (and expensive) turf of the stadium.

The organiser’s stopgap solution to this very serious problem was office vacuum cleaners, of all things. The machines would feebly suck up a few litres of fluid at a time before having their contents tipped into a rubbish bin. The cycle repeated over and over, to no visible effect. The last two volunteers and I felt increasingly weary as the organisers bickered amongst themselves. The final straw was when another pipe burst. It was time to go home.

As we got ready to leave we overheard someone say that it was all over. As we walked out of the stadium we saw another organiser hunched over, head in his hands.  Things did not bode well for the Ice Hockey Classic in Wellington.

I flew up to Auckland the next morning and watched the game there that night. It was excellent, and the troubles that afflicted Wellington’s event showed no signs there. However, the Facebook event page for the game in Wellington, scheduled to happen the next day posted that the game was to be delayed to later on Saturday evening. The next day, it was delayed by 24 hours. Finally, the event was cancelled as fans were entering the stadium, leaving a wake of angry Facebook posts in its wake.

The failures that led to this outcome were varied and complex, but crucially they all added up to provide what in military terms is called a “clusterfuck” – a clusterpuck, if you will. One thing is fairly certain: I’m probably not getting that jersey.

 

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