The MHG Ice Centre opened in Saco three years ago with no problems. But looking back, Joakim Wahlstrom, the arena’s general manager, knew something wasn’t right.

“I remember some of the kids complaining about headaches and not feeling up to speed,” he said of members of the Junior Pirates and youth teams. “We didn’t really think much of it. After the fact, we should have. We wondered if some of the kids had asthma. Some seemed lethargic.”

Those ailments have all but disappeared. The arena switched from a propane-fueled Zamboni ice resurfacer that was used the first two years to a battery-powered Zamboni ice resurfacer purchased last year.

The price was significant — about $170,000 — but, said Wahlstrom, with daily use of the ice from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., resulting in about 10 ice cleanings a day, “we did not want to take any shortcuts in regards to the safety of the kids and the parents.”

The result, he said, was much fresher air. “It just feels cleaner,” he said.

Air quality in hockey rinks has been a major topic since The Today Show on NBC recently ran a story about the dangers of carbon monoxide in rinks that have little or no ventilation. The show profiled a 14-year-old boy who was hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning after a game, and a former Ice Capades skater who suffered from long-term carbon monoxide poisoning. It also showed how the level of carbon monoxide rises to unhealthy levels while the ice is being cleaned, then lingers in the air.

That report coincided with a Feb. 6 incident in Gunnison, Colo., where more than 60 people at a youth hockey tournament were sickened by high levels of carbon monoxide.

Don Schlupp, the director of sales and marketing for Resurfice Corp., a Canadian company that produces Olympia Ice Resurfacers, isn’t surprised by the reaction to the story.

“It’s not new,” he said. “This issue comes up every year.”

Soon after The Today Show report, youth hockey leagues throughout the area contacted rinks in Greater Portland to determine air safety. What they found was many of the rinks, which deal with hundreds of hockey players and other clubs, have been proactive.

“I got several phone calls and emails within a couple of hours of that show,” said Jeff Murray, the president of Huskies Youth Hockey, which plays at the University of Southern Maine. “So I called (rink manager Vinnie Degifico) and asked him specific questions so I could put the issue to rest before it took root.”

USM, like most local rinks, uses an electric ice resurfacer and edger — which don’t produce toxic fumes — and has a state-of-the-art ventilation system.

Only Family Ice Center in Falmouth and the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland use propane-fueled resurfacers. And both have more-than-adequate ventilation systems that pull in fresh air and exhaust the air in the building. The system at Family Ice is only 3 years old and is set to turn on at half the industry standards.

“Our system has built-in monitors (for carbon monoxide and other pollutants) throughout the arena,” said Kevin Sackville, the general manager. “And if it reaches a certain threshold, it automatically turns on. We exhaust the air in the building and pull in fresh air.

“That’s the main thing we do to ensure safe air quality for the players and customers.”

Sackville said they perform emissions tests on the ice resurfacer three times a year. His Olympia is 5 years old and considered in excellent condition.

The University of Maine uses both types of Zamboni ice resurfacers. Its main one is battery-powered; the secondary one is propane-fueled and used only during games to ensure quality ice conditions.

The two companies that produce ice resurfacers and edgers — Frank J. Zamboni & Co., Inc., in Paramount, Calif., (which made the first electric-powered ice resurfacer in 1959) and Resurfice Corp. — still sell more fuel-powered machines than electric. According to the Zamboni general manager, Paula Coony, approximately 55 percent of the machines sold are propane-fueled. Schlupp estimates that 60 percent of the Olympias sold are propane or natural gas machines.

But there is a movement toward the battery-powered machines. The only drawback is the price.

An electric-powered Olympia ice resurfacer, for example, costs about $160,000, compared to $90,000 for a propane or natural gas-fueled machine. The cost difference is due to the body of the machine being made with stainless steel, ensuring a longer life.

Schlupp said some Olympias used in Europe are more than 20 years old. A fuel-powered ice resurfacer should be replaced within eight years.

The Portland Ice Arena purchased an electric Olympia last June for $142,000, which included a trade-in. D.J. Whitten, the rink manager, said it was worth every cent.

“It was a no-brainer in my opinion,” he said. “It’s definitely an upgrade. And for us, operationally, because we won’t have the need to dilute the building with fresh air as often, long-term there will be a big savings for us.”

The ventilation systems in rinks are as important as what type of ice resurfacer is used.

When the ice is cleaned, the ventilation system draws air out of the arena and replaces it with fresh air from outside.

Ray Lafond, an Olympia distributor out of Virginia who also services and tests all the machines he sells, said rink managers should test their air quality frequently for potential high levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide — regardless of what type of ice resurfacer they use. There are many other pieces of equipment, such as heaters, that could produce harmful toxins.

“Any time you have facilities with kids and people in it, safety needs to be your No. 1 concern,” he said.

USM’s Degifico understands the concern of parents. “I can see the terror that they’re thinking about,” he said.

But, said Family Ice’s Sackville, local rinks are doing their best to avert any problems.

“We take a lot of pride in what we do,” he said. “We’re willing to invest money in technology and equipment, not only to be energy efficient, but to operate a safe environment for our players and fans.” 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]