ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Most college hockey fans are aware that the longest NCAA Division I men's hockey tournament game was played on Saturday (into early Sunday morning) at Scheels Arena in Fargo. Minnesota Duluth ended up beating North Dakota 3-2 in five overtimes for a trip to the Frozen Four in a game that lasted 142 minutes, 13 seconds.
For people at the game and watching on TV, they may noticed that the ice looked like it was in great shape, even in the fifth overtime. If you're wondering why, one reason is because the University of North Dakota reached out to Cory Portner, St. Cloud State's director of the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
UND has been a host institution for regionals held at Scheels Arena in 2015, 2017 and 2019. In 2019, Denver won the West Regional title, beating AIC, 3-0. But the ice conditions were substandard for all three games in the regional.
Erik Martinson, North Dakota's associate athletic director for operations, set out to make sure that the ice would be improved in 2021.
"I'm the tournament director for the host institution and we partnered with Scheels Arena, home of the Fargo Force," Martinson said of the United States Hockey League franchise. "Knowing the things that we did in the past, ice conditions are always top on our radar. You can get a million things correct, but if your ice isn't dialed in, that's a major issue and it's going to affect the game itself.
"The biggest issue that we've learned doing these (regionals) is that putting brand new ice in the week of a tournament is not great."
So Martinson reached out to Cory Portner, St. Cloud State's director of the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. Martinson met Portner during the NCHC Pod that was held Dec. 1-21 at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Neb. The eight NCHC teams played 38 games in 21 days at the arena and Portner had asked if he could help.
Portner has worked for a number of arenas and ice associations since 1998. From 2007-16, he served as the membership and training director and was a lead instructor for the Certified Ice Technician training program with the U.S. Ice Rink Association.
With the Brooks Center — and all other ice facilities in Minnesota sitting idle in the month of December because of the coronavirus pandemic — Portner asked St. Cloud State athletic director Heather Weems and NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton if he could help with the ice at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Neb.
"I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be bored if we don't have any hockey games in the front half of the season here,'" Portner said. "I just offered to both of them, 'If I can be of any assistance, I'd be happy to do it.' Thankfully, Heather was 100% behind the endeavor and the efforts and super supportive of me going down.
"I had worked with Josh at (NCHC) Frozen Faceoffs before at Target Center," Portner said of the site where the conference's semifinals and championship were played from 2014-17. "I think he's pretty comfortable what small detail things you can bring to the table if you bring someone in and collaborate and just focus on the field of play."
Portner traveled with the Huskies on their team bus to Omaha. The first two days, there were two games played each day in Omaha.
"There was about a four-day period where we were dealing with some variables that we didn't anticipate," Portner said. "I don't think those guys had the time to build the ice the way we wanted to. The first 2, 3, 4 games, we didn't like where it was at. We spent a significant amount of time and we pulled a lot of overnighters the first week. After that, we were pretty dialed in."
Martinson got to know Portner at the Pod and then asked him to come and help with the ice for the regional. One of the challenges of hosting a regional is getting the NCAA tournament logo at center ice to set under the right amount of ice.
"We want to learn and the ice technicians to learn from Cory because that's kind of his gig," Martinson said. "We partnered up with him. He came to a couple Force games, helped with the (ice) install.
"We needed to get the ice in early. When you put the ice in the week of (the regional) and go right into practices and games, that ice isn't broken in. So we had a special request with the NCAA and they approved it for us to put it in early. We had two USHL games and some other practices on that ice."
Portner said that during the regional championship game, he and his crew did regular checks on the depth of the ice. That helps determine how deep the ice resurfacer needs to scrape the ice and how much water to put on the ice. Portner said that attendance being held down to 25% capacity helped keep the building temperature cooler, though they were battling a day when the humidity outside the building was 85%.
"That building works really well in the winter, but for the springtime stuff when we're dealing with humidity and we had rain during the tournament — we had to control the ambient temperature and the humidity inside the building," Portner said. "We knew that if we could drive the temperature of the arena down during the day, that we could hold (the ice) a whole lot better during the game.
"We probably dropped the arena temperature 5-8 degrees from where they normally run it. We, obviously, weren't anticipating eight periods of hockey. Had we not driven the temperature down, we'd have been in trouble by overtime No. 2. We'd have been having some significant issues. We also had the same two drivers for all the practices and games and that helps significantly.
"We felt really good about how well the building held. We had a pretty decent crowd and it was kind of nice that we didn't have 4,000 people in there ... The conditions reacted the way we thought they would. The temperatures went up over eight periods of hockey. I think mathematically, we had it dialed in the night before."
Martinson said that he has already asked Portner to clear his schedule to help with the ice for the 2023 regional that Scheels Arena will host.