When ice is more than ice

By Erin Barney

Bill Wood uses a language only a select few can appreciate. He communicates in numbers, physics, and most importantly, frozen water.

Wood, 46, is a member of the research and development group working toward perfecting curling ice. He’s one of just six in the world to have that specific skill set and interest. In layman’s terms, this group of engineers and physicists use their extensive knowledge about ice to create an ideal sheet for Olympic-level curling.

“We’re a bunch of Sheldon’s,” Wood said. “Every one of us.”

The Sheldon label comes from CBS’s show “The Big Bang Theory,” a series featuring a group of extremely bright, but socially awkward scientists. Like Sheldon, Wood is insatiably curious, sometimes to a fault, he said. He can’t bring himself to put a puzzle down until it’s solved, so he’s an ideal candidate to take on the potentially unending quest for the perfect sheet of ice.

“I hate it, but I love it,” Wood said. “I have data and spreadsheets and binders and samples, but I’m not there yet.”

Whether it’s a crystalized pond, frozen lake or a glassy sidewalk, ice is all the same, right?

“Very wrong,” Wood said.

Chemically, yes. Two hydrogen atoms bond to an oxygen—Wood learned this while other kids were pedaling their first training wheel-free bike. But while hockey rinks are playable after a onceover by the Zamboni, curling ice needs a lot more TLC.

Wood has to spend a full day scraping the curling surface before a match or tournament. He makes 17 passes over each sheet with the Ice King (a device resembling a lawnmower that cuts the ice flat.) Walking almost four miles grinding down a venue’s eight sheets is only the first step in the preparation.

Pebbling is next. The subtle bumps on curling ice create space for air to circulate up-and-under a curling rock, allowing it to glide. To create that texture, Wood attaches a copper covering that’s poked with 54 holes to the end of a hose and sweeps it over the curling lane. He puts 8.5 million pebbles on each sheet.

Bill Wood shows one of hundreds of copper pebble heads he has created (Erin Barney/MEDILL)
Bill Wood shows one of hundreds of copper pebble heads he has created (Erin Barney/MEDILL)

All elusive and temperamental, the pebbles are easily affected by the environment. Wood has dedicated his career and education to the discovery of a system that would gather and analyze environmental data from the arena and respond with instructions for how the ice should be treated that day.

“Whether I get a Ph.D when I’m done or not, doesn’t matter,” Wood said. “That’s not the goal. The goal is to figure out why this freaking water droplet doesn’t do what I want it to do.”

The work only gets harder once the match begins. Wood can’t miss even one second of monitoring changes in the arena’s temperature. A half-degree drop alters the speed of a curling rock, something that doesn’t evade the players’ scrutiny.

“They notice,” Wood said. “Boy do they notice. They’ll walk off the ice and come right to me to complain about the slowness.”

In the past 10 years, Wood has done the ice for competitions of all levels in 21 countries, five continents, 34 states, and all 10 provinces in Canada. But no matter how many times he’s been on the big stage, stress always seeps in. It takes a whole team of icemen to bear the pressure of maintaining impeccable ice conditions so curlers can just focus on curling.

Rob Corn, 33, has been on several of those teams. Formerly a nationally-competitive curler, he joined the league of ice techs when he formed his own program in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Wood was the only one he trusted to correctly teach him the art of ice maintenance.

“I have a ton of respect for Bill,” Corn said. “He takes the research to a next level, which is great for the sport.”

Once he learned, the two worked on ice together for tournaments in the Chicago area. Corn said while Wood is the king of research, it helps to have multiple perspectives at each event.

“If you can throw rocks at the processional level, you can really tell what the ice needs to do and how it works,” Corn said. “We create the ice together because having an athlete’s eye really helps him. If I can throw a good rock on it, we can see our flaws on the ice and go back and fix it.”

Wood is eager to pass along his knowledge to any interested parties. His most formidable protégé is his son, Matthew. The 16-year-old already has scholarship offers to study engineering at the University of Windsor and the University of Waterloo.

Wood proudly admits that Matthew also has him beat in math.

“Everyone told me to put him in a sport, put him in hockey,” Wood said. “But why? I could spend $5,000 for hockey for a year, or for his birthday, I could buy him a 3D printer.”

Which is exactly what he did—he said he’s happy to foster his son’s inner-Sheldon.

Wood said he expects someone outside his R&D group to adopt his ice investigation eventually, even if it’s not his own flesh and blood. He was recently approached by a group at the University of Dalhousie in Halifax that wants to incorporate his findings into its curriculum. But though he doesn’t see a solution in the near future, if he or someone else manages to perfect curling ice someday, he’ll just move on to another puzzle.

“My father told me just the other day, ‘You’ll die with your boots on the ice,’” Wood said.

Photo at top: Bill Wood monitors the speed of curling stones at the Chicago Curling Club (Erin Barney/MEDILL)