Hockey Ice: Fast vs. Slow

hockey ice
Photo by cottonbro studio

The science behind ice surfaces and how that affects the game

Whether you are a rec hockey player or just a fan who enjoys watching the action, knowing the difference between fast hockey ice and slow ice can help you better understand the game and how that can affect it. This article looks at the science behind these two types of ice, and how they differ.

If you love watching hockey players try to put a puck past a goalie or just streak elegantly across the ice, one thing is certain—hockey ice adds a unique element that no other sport can match. As players zip across the ice at incredible speeds, the action is scaled up thanks to the almost frictionless quality that the surface provides.

Although fans may never give much consideration to the quality of the ice in an arena, hockey players certainly do. While it may all just be frozen water (sometimes containing other elements like salt), the ice on which hockey is played can have a material difference in the outcome of a game.

Because of this, much effort goes into ensuring the ice in an arena is perfectly designed and maintained. Despite these efforts, ice can and does change during a game—which any player can attest to—when it transitions from fast ice to slow ice.

Arena Hockey Ice

Before discussing the variants of hockey ice, we should first understand how the ice floors of these arenas are constructed. While some believe the arena floor is a solid sheet of ice suspended above cooling systems that keep it intact, the fact is that the floor of most arenas is simply a slab of concrete.

However, this concrete is embedded with a cooling system that pumps a freezing-cold brine solution through pipes (which doesn’t freeze thanks to its calcium chloride content) and makes the surface of the concrete ice cold—no pun intended.

Beneath it, a layer of insulation sits atop yet another layer of heated concrete. These layers help direct the cold upward and prevent the ground under the primary slab of concrete from freezing—that could result in an expansion, which could crack the top layer.

A layer of water is sprayed atop the chilled slab of concrete, which freezes almost instantly when making contact with the frigid temperature of the slab. This layer is usually painted white, the purpose of which is to contrast with any other logos in the ice and, of course, make the puck easier to see.

After adding more thin layers of water—each freezing in turn—team decals, markers such as the center line, blue lines, etc., and anything else that needs to be visible are also painted onto the sheets of ice. Following that, a final layer of water is applied that freezes to the finished surface of the arena.

Ideally, this ice is maintained at a temperature of around 24.8 degrees F (or -4 degrees C). This can be challenging depending on where the sheet is located, as outside heat may enter and raise the overall temperature of the arena. Of course, this is not too much of a problem for arenas located in regions with colder climates.

Fast Hockey Ice

New arenas with freshly made ice, and existing arenas that have just benefited from the work of a Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine, are known as “fast” ice (also sometimes called “good” ice). This sheet is harder, smoother and colder—providing a more consistent surface area void of crevices or chips.

For hockey players and fans alike, fast ice is usually more appealing because it does not have shavings collecting in areas and has a more gleaming appearance. It also leads to more action-packed games because of how it interacts with the players’ skates.

Hockey players prefer this type of ice without question. Because of the smoother surface, skate blades can more easily glide across the rink’s surface and allow them to—as the type of the ice indicates—go faster.

Aside from skating around at higher speeds, fast ice is also preferable to players because the puck travels more accurately and smoothly on this ice. This is because, like players’ skates, it encounters less resistance while traveling across the ice.

Unfortunately, because of the wear and tear that a hockey game puts on a rink, fast ice invariably will revert to slow ice. To combat this and return the ice to a pristine, smooth surface, Zambonis are used to reapply a fresh coat of water before a game and between periods.

These marvelous machines travel the rink in slow lines, leaving behind fresh and sparkling ice in their wake. Using a rotating blade underneath, the machine scrapes up the surface of the ice while simultaneously spraying a thin layer of warm water. A cloth or brushes remove the excess of this water, while most freezes almost instantly into new, fast ice.

Slow Hockey Ice

In contrast to fast ice, “slow” ice (also called “bad” ice for reasons that will become obvious) is the kind that has been marred and chipped by skaters. It is filled with grooves and crevices and has many ice shavings caused by the skates. Together, these make the ice considerably softer and less smooth. Consequently, it also usually has a higher temperature than fast ice.

The result of these conditions means that players cannot glide as fast across the ice because of the additional resistance against their skates. Likewise, the puck can also be affected as it may not cross the distance expected from a pass or veer off course if it hits an indentation in the ice.

For hockey fans, this results in slower gameplay and a slightly less action-packed game. This is disappointing for spectators and could cause severe frustration for those who placed bets on the outcome of a game using the sites featured on

Because of this, sometimes games with excessive soft ice result in a brief delay to allow the Zamboni to revert the ice to fast ice. This is another reason why hockey games take place in three periods: to allow the Zamboni to clean the ice and return it to a state that enables the best conditions possible. is reader supported. When you buy via the links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. Learn more.

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