Dan Craig has seen it all this hockey season, and we mean that rather literally.
The NHL’s senior director of facilities operations has produced outdoor-game ice in the brutal cold. He’s done it on the balmy West Coast. He’s helped manage it through frustrating snowfalls. So the thought of making and maintaining ice in Chicago in early March?
“It’ll be a challenge for me because when I did the game in (Los Angeles) I was in a T-shirt, so that’ll be a challenge,” Craig said on Tuesday. “A lot of our guys are very much aware of what we’re up against. You wake up and whatever Mother Nature gives you, you deal with it.”
Craig and company have dealt with Mother Nature fairly well, and they’ll be doing it again as they prepare for the Chicago Blackhawks-Pittsburgh Penguins game at Soldier Field on March 1. The game will be the final installment of this season’s Stadium Series, which featured outdoor games at chilly Yankee Stadium and toasty Dodger Stadium. Now the crew is in Chicago, where they’ll deal with temperamental March weather. But for a group that’s dealt with several different weather patterns and worked with several different venues in this Stadium Series, it’s one more challenge welcomed.
“That’s what I told our crew when we selected everyone: ‘This season basically tells us where we’re going to go, what we’re going to do in the future.’ That’s what it’s all about,” he said. "We want to bring the game back outdoors where it belongs. We love it, players love it, this is what we want to do.”
Stadium crews were already busy clearing snow and setting down a jigsaw puzzle-like base on Soldier Field on Tuesday. In a few days the league crew will start putting in piping, spraying water and going through its ice-making procedures. Then it’s all about maintaining that ice, be it over the ensuing days or during the game. What’s the crew’s No. 1 challenge? Getting that ice to a perfect 22 degrees.
“That gives us our best glide,” Craig said. “We want density so guys are on the surface all the time, and minimum snow accumulation so the puck moves well.”
When weather doesn’t cooperate, the league does what’s necessary to reach the best conditions. The start of the Jan. 26 game between the New Jersey Devils-New York Rangers at Yankee Stadium was delayed due to sun glare on the ice. Obviously that won’t be a problem with Blackhawks-Penguins, given the game’s starting at night. Snow, however, is always a possibility. Craig said his biggest challenge came at this year’s Winter Classic in Michigan, when his on-ice crew, consisting of 10 to 12 people, was working hard to clear snow every chance it got.
“Some ask, ‘Why that many?’ When you hit a day like that, that’s why,” Craig said. “So we can carry on the game and it’s within the time frame we want to be and everybody has a great time and the game’s fantastic.”
Every outdoor game has its challenges. From Winter Classic outings to this season’s Stadium Series locations, Craig and his crew have officially seen it all. That helps them be prepared for it all, even the insanity known as March weather in Chicago.
“You can’t sit and wait for (perfect conditions) to happen,” Craig said. “This game’s going to happen and we have to be ready.”