Canada’s ‘Ice King’ maintaining Olympic oval in South Korea

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When the Olympics are on, most of the focus is on the athletes. But tonight, we're turning the spotlight on the stars behind the scenes. The volunteers, who make sure things go off without a hitch. And as Jeff Semple tells us, lots of them are Canadian – Feb 22, 2018

Calgarian Mark Messer and his team have been practicing and preparing for the Pyeongchang Olympics for over two years. Their event is held at the Oval Ice Rink in South Korea’s Olympic Village and it is dominated by Canadians.

“We’re a team of ice technicians,” Messer told Global News. But they’re perhaps better known to Canadians as Zamboni drivers.

“It’s a long labour of love,” he said.

“We love to see the looks on the skaters’ faces when they succeed.”

Messer has worked as an ice technician for over 30 years and normally runs the Calgary Olympic Oval, which is considered one of the fastest ice sheets on Earth. His reputation as the “Ice King” earned him an invitation to South Korea.

From left to right, Don Moffatt, Hans Wurhrich and Mark Messer stand on the ice at the Gangneung Oval where the Pyeongchang Olympic Speedskating competition will take place, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Pyeongchang, Korea. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-David J. Phillip

“The work started about two years ago when we started getting involved with the construction of the building,” he said.

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Messer has made ice for the Olympics in Calgary, Salt Lake City, Turin and Vancouver. But South Korea’s Olympic Oval has proven particularly challenging because it sits just a few metres above sea level; The lower the altitude, the greater the air pressure and the slower the ice. As a result, Messer and his team of Canadians (and one American) made more than a dozen trips to the Olympic Park ahead of the Games and have recently been working around the clock.

READ MORE: 2018 Winter Olympics officially Canada’s most successful Winter Games ever

But Messer doesn’t seem to mind the extra work. He talks about ice like a wine connoisseur reviews a vintage. “There’s a little magical point when the ice is just right,” he said with a grin. “And you can see it on the ice and you can hear it as the skaters go by. When you hear that, it’s like: Yeah, it’s gonna be a good night tonight.”

And even here on the other side of the world, Messer said he keeps seeing familiar faces: “I think people would be amazed to see how many Canadians are working here.”

Pyeongchang is indeed crawling with Canadians, who are working behind the scenes to keep the Games and its athletes on track. Brian Nason from Hamilton, Ont., and his team are manning the mountains.

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Brian Nason and his team of volunteers installing fences and 'air bags' on ski courses in Pyeongchang. John D. Lychak
Brian Nason and his team of volunteers installing fences and 'air bags' on ski courses in Pyeongchang. John D. Lychak
Brian Nason and his team of volunteers installing fences and 'air bags' on ski courses in Pyeongchang. John D. Lychak
A safety fence on a ski course in Pyeongchang. John D. Lychak

“We’re installing the safety systems throughout the (ski) course; so the nets, airbags, anything to protect the athletes as they’re coming down the course,” Nason said.

Those safety systems have proved particularly critical at these Games, with high winds being blamed for an unusually high number of falls and crashes in Alpine events.

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“Athletes in these speed events are going 150 kilometres an hour; so if you’re getting off track and hitting a system, it’s critical that it’s installed properly.”

READ MORE: Canada’s India Sherret crashes hard in ski cross at 2018 Winter Olympics

Nason and his team of North Americans are volunteers who pay most of their own expenses during the Olympics, including airfare from Canada. But they say it’s well worth the investment.

“All of us are very passionate about the sport,” Nason said.

“So it’s lovely to give back to the sport.”

Canadian skier Alex Beaulieu-Marchand, who won a bronze medal in men’s slopestyle, paid tribute to Nason and other volunteers.

“There are so many people making sure that everything is all right for us,” he told Global News. “Everyone who’s working behind the scenes, we’re just so thankful for them. Really appreciate it.”

Brian Nason and his team of volunteers at the beach in Gangneung. John D. Lychak