Last week at this time, it was a smooth sheet of ice inside the CenturyLink Center's convention hall, serving as the practice ice for top figure skaters like Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold.
But just hours after the U.S. Figure Skating Championships ended, the former practice rink was being melted, its components taken apart and shipped down the street to TD Ameritrade Park, where it's now getting a second life — for a very different type of skating.
Next weekend, the rink will be front and center for Nebraska's first-ever major outdoor hockey games: a doubleheader featuring the Omaha Lancers taking on the Lincoln Stars and the University of Nebraska at Omaha facing off against the University of North Dakota. But for now, the focus is on rebuilding the rink and getting a baseball stadium that usually sits empty in winter ready for thousands of visitors.
Friday, about a dozen workers from a Texas company called Ice Rink Events were out on the TD Ameritrade field, braving single-digit temperatures to lay down the nearly 30 miles of refrigeration tubing that goes under the ice.
Mike Clayton, the company's owner and general manager, said the tubing can be broken up into 34 sections. After crews melted the ice at the CenturyLink Center and hauled out the leftover slush, they rolled up each of the sections, like spools of cable. Then they brought those rolls over to the ballpark, where they already had put down more than 5,000 sheets of plywood to smooth out the field.
The sections of tubing were snapped together to create the 17,000-square-foot rink, which is the exact size of the rink that had been used for figure skating. Over the next few days, crews will pour in the water to make fresh ice, paint it and have it hockey-ready by Thursday, two days before the big games.
Once it's ready to go, the ice will be cleared by the same Zambonis used at the CenturyLink Center for indoor hockey games.
In the meantime, though, there's plenty of work to be done off the ice. Crews have to add the glass, netting, benches and penalty-box areas required for hockey. The ballpark's scoreboard had to be temporarily transformed to work for hockey rather than baseball. Heaters have to be installed for officials working near the ice.
Concession areas have to be restocked, too. The doors to one stand on the concourse were open Friday, with cases of beer stacked nearly from floor to ceiling.
“There are lots of little things that come into play: de-winterizing of the venue, having running water, making sure the toilets are functioning, because it's not set for winter,” said Harold Cliff, president of the Omaha Sports Commission.
Tickets for the match-ups went on sale in October, and more than 10,000 have been sold. Cliff said organizers are hoping last-minute purchases will push it closer to the 15,000 mark.
Mike Kemp, UNO's associate athletic director, said the games will be an unusual opportunity for hockey fans, because outdoor games are relatively rare. At the college level, there will be just two other outdoor games played this year, in mid-February at Chicago's Soldier Field.
Plus, he said, it will be a new challenge for many of the UNO athletes.
“There are going to be a lot of players on our team who may have never played outdoors, and certainly not played in an environment like this,” he said. “It's going to be an exciting thing, it's going to be memorable, and something that we'll all cherish for a long period of time.”
Lancers owner Ben Robert said watching and playing hockey outdoors provides for a more authentic experience.
“You feel your breath coming out, it's a lot of fun and it's intense,” he said. “And we've got two great rivalries.”
Organizers expect the novelty of attending a sporting event at a ballpark in the winter to bring out some hockey newcomers, too.
“Certainly it will be as much of a social thing as it is a sporting event,” Kemp said.