CALGARY – A game of shinny was never like this.
Instead of hockey players skating up and down and clearing the ice with shovels, there was a fleet of bobcats and tractors hard at work at McMahon Stadium on Thursday. They were clearing the football field in preparation for the NHL’s Heritage Classic between the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens.
The area where the ice will be put in was already cleared of the heavy snow that has fallen in Calgary and NHL ice makers were carefully laying down the floor before the actual ice starts to go in Monday. The fact it is being put on a football field is not without its challenges.
“This field is a unique field because it’s what we call a turtleback. The crown of the field is pretty extreme on this and if you take a look there’s a big sandbox out there,” explained Dan Craig, NHL Facilities Operations manager.
“It is anywhere from eight inches (20 centimetres) in the middle to 10 inches (25 centimetres) on the end so everything had to be levelled off before we put our platform down.”
Craig, from Jasper, Alta., is opting for a sand foundation under the plywood base instead of the Styrofoam he’s used in the more humid climates of the northeastern United States.
So far it appears Mother Nature is co-operating. The temperature was 5 C as the work on turning McMahon Stadium into a hockey entertainment centre got underway.
“We expect somewhere in the neighbourhood of about 41,000 plus here game day,” said Don Renzulli, NHL Senior Vice-President, Events.
“Weather is always a big deal in these games. Right now it’s beautiful out. The extended forecast has us at – 6 C with possibly some light flurries come game day. We shouldn’t have any issue getting prepared and we’re ready to go.”
The first Heritage Classic was a frigid one in 2003 when the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Habs. Temperatures of – 23 C prompted Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore to pull a tuque over his helmet.
Craig, the NHL’s chief icemaker, is a little emotional about returning the game to its roots.
“Any Canadian that has played a game, who has been out skating one way or another—it’s bringing the game that we love outdoors back to where it started,” Craig explained. “That’s what the National Hockey League is doing.
“We started in 1917 outdoors and we’ve come back to our roots. Canadians will stay out there six, eight or 10 hours—that’s what it’s all about. That’s our heritage.”
Temporary seats have been constructed at McMahon to bring capacity up to about 42,000. The merchandise tent and other storage facilities have already been erected and what is basically a giant sandbox has been laid at field level.
Renzulli said it is events like these that will catch the attention of what he called the “non-avid” hockey fan both here in Canada and in the lucrative U.S. market.
“Everyone where they’re Canadian or U.S.—they come to this and it’s a special day. They get the opportunity to be out with 40,000 of their closest friends, watching a hockey game, a little bit different that being in an arena,” he said. “Are your sight lines better in the Saddledome? Absolutely and any other stadium we play in.
“But the players walk out in front of 40,000 or 60,000 people. You can see things here you can’t see anywhere else. It’s about building the brand of hockey.”