Monday night, NHL Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig makes his way to Pittsburgh to begin preparations for the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.
Thursday around midnight, immediately following the Pittsburgh Steelers’ home game against the Carolina Panthers, Craig and his crew will take to Heinz Field to start laying the groundwork for the rink.
“We’re hoping that, all things considered, Mother Nature will be good to us and we’ll be making ice by 9 p.m. Christmas night,” Craig said. “We’ll be building ice from that point on, and then on the 28th, we’ll be doing our hockey lines, markings and logo installation.”
As for what constitutes the weather being kind, it turns out there is such a thing as too cold for making ice.
“It’s one of those things where minus-20 is too cold for us to be outside and too cold for us to make ice,” Craig said. “We don’t have a lot of leeway, but we do have some.
“So, if we happen to get a really cold snap that will be a detriment to the surface if we continue, we have four [to] six hours at certain locations that we can back away for a while and then come back on it, which means that we’re going to have to make that time up somewhere. It’s a continual evolution of what Mother Nature is going to throw at you.”
Luckily, no such cold snap is expected in Pittsburgh – at least, not as far as the 10-day forecast, which holds high temperatures in the 20s and snow showers or flurries most every day.
“I must be a good Western Canadian guy because [to me] flurry means very little snow,” Craig said. “We have a very good crew and we just pick our spots. This thing is put together like a jigsaw puzzle. If we have to work 20 feet at a time, shovel snow, 20 [more] feet at a time, shovel snow, that’s what we’ll do.”
The project couldn’t be in more capable hands. Craig has been in the ice-making business for 44 years, 23 of them in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers and his current position.
“Back in 1979, I had a small rink in my backyard that my little four-year-old was skating on, and he’s now part of my crew that does Winter Classics,” Craig said. “That was in Northern Alberta, up in Bonnyville, even prior to going to Edmonton. And from that point on, being in Alberta, you work on a lot of outdoor rinks, little ponds. And you hear stories that that’s how guys started their careers, playing on ponds … and throughout the years, you bring [what you learn] to the next one.”
Whether it’s building a rink at historic Fenway Park in Boston or on top of a swimming pool in Tokyo – both challenges Craig has undertaken during his career – one thing remains constant.
“Stress, because of the high caliber of the players we have playing on our surface,” he said. “For me, that’s what it is. Because there are two regular-season NHL points on the table, and we are on the world platform. And I want to make sure that everybody has the ability to play the game at the highest level.”
This year’s Winter Classic might have the highest caliber of star power so far, with captains Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals headlining the matchup. That may mean more hype, but it doesn’t impact Craig’s approach.
“I don’t think that adds any different pressure than what we’ve experienced in the past,” he said. “It’s the same as any other year, any other major event that we’ve done. I’m going to the airport; I’m in Pittsburgh tonight. I can already feel the jitters coming.”
And, on game day, his crew will be at Heinz Field at 4 a.m. for the 1 p.m. start, continually monitoring the ice and the weather situation.
“It doesn’t matter where you live, the weather patterns can change throughout the day. You have a fairly good snapshot of it, but it’s a matter of how you deal with each situation.
“Once the game is over, we want [the players] to have enjoyed the time that they had with the NHL Winter Classic.”