Winter Classic: NHL's rink architect has 6 days to transform Heinz Field

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Disregard the plans, roadways and platforms, the remote under-ice monitors. Throw out the manual. When facing a square peg-round hole scenario like building a skating rink on grass, you need a man with experience, a man who can do it by feel, a man who once built a skating rink in his backyard for his 4-year-old son.

That was 1979 in the town of Bonnyville, Alberta, about 150 miles northeast of Edmonton. That man was Dan Craig, now the National Hockey League's facilities operations director. Mr. Craig's son, Mike, grew up to spend his Decembers making ice alongside his father, who is tasked with building a hockey rink on a football field in a little more than six days.

The Steelers play the Carolina Panthers tonight at Heinz Field. Hines Ward may not even be out of the shower before Dan Craig and his 12-man team start to build the rink that will host the Winter Classic between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals on Jan. 1.

"We will take to the field at midnight," said Mr. Craig in a conference call, sounding like Union General George Meade before the Battle of Gettysburg, and indeed they will wage war: against common sense, time and the weather.

Mr. Craig has his marching orders: Have a hockey rink ready to go by noon Dec. 30. His to-the-minute battle plan involves equipment roadways, platforms, miles of tubing, 3,000 gallons of coolant, 20,000 gallons of water and pleas to the weather gods to allow the work to proceed.

"It's a continual evolution of what Mother Nature is going to throw at you," he said.

There's no one better equipped for this task than Mr. Craig, 55, a western Canadian with 44 years of experience, going back to his work as a youth at the local rink in Jaspar, Alberta.

"And from that point on, being in Alberta, you work on a lot of outdoor rinks, little ponds," he said.

Mr. Craig made ice for the Edmonton Oilers for 10 years and joined the NHL 13 years ago. In that time, he has built ice on top of a swimming pool in Tokyo, and built rinks in Torino, Italy, and London. He built the rink for the 2003 Heritage Classic, the precursor to the Winter Classic. The Heritage Classic was held outside in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. In 2001, he built the rink for the Cold War between the University of Michigan and Michigan State, held in Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.

Mr. Craig built three rinks for the previous Winter Classics: at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., in 2008, Wrigley Field in Chicago in '09 and Fenway Park in Boston in 2010.

Unlike at a baseball stadium, where he has unlimited time to build the ice, Mr. Craig must work on an accelerated schedule. He already started studying by watching Sunday's Steelers-New York Jets game to get a feel for wind and field conditions.

"So you take record of it and kind of say, 'OK, that's what's happening at this end zone,' " he said. " 'This is what's happening at that end zone.' "

First his crew will lay roadways on the field for the equipment and then build the 15-inch-high stage on which the rink will rest to correct for the crown of the field.

The 300-ton, 53-foot custom-built refrigeration truck, which pumps the coolant under the ice, will arrive Friday. The stage and panels for the ice will take 10 to 12 hours to complete, he said. Those panels contain the coolant to freeze the water and, if all goes well, he'll be making ice by Christmas night. On Tuesday, his crew will paint the ice with hockey lines and logos, then build another inch of ice.

Outdoor ice-making has seen some improvements since Mr. Craig's days of prepping the ponds of Alberta. After the 2008 game in Buffalo, the NHL bought a portable ice-making unit. Mr. Craig's crew will install an in-line heating element in case the ice gets too cold, which he said happened in Boston. They'll also use Eye on the Ice, a monitoring system created for curling that relies on probes built into the ice. The probes transmit ice and air temperature, humidity, air flow and dew point to a cell phone or laptop in real time.

"Every 15 minutes we'll log and trend it so we can graph what's happening on any given day," Mr. Craig said.

He will only see the players during practice the day before the event. His experience tells him what they might say, were he to talk to them after the game.

"I don't need players to expressly tell me what they're feeling out there because I can see it," he said. "I watch their expressions. I watch what happens within the game. And I can basically write the script of the report, what the guys are going to tell me."

The news media will test the ice on Dec. 30, and the alumni game with Penguins owner Mario Lemieux will follow the next day. At 1 p.m. on New Year's Day, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin will play on an NHL regulation, 200-by-85-foot sheet of ice. The rink will be centered on the football field, stretching from about one 20-yard line to the other lengthwise and extending just outside the hash marks.


Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1158.


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