BUFFALO, N.Y. – The ice looked terrific and everything was right on target, but Dan Craig was in no mood to relax.
The NHL’s ice guru, with bags under his eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard screaming for a shave, will not rest easy until the final buzzer sounds after Tuesday’s Winter Classic outdoor game between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins (1 p.m. ET).
“There’s no relaxing for the next 48 hours – none, zero,” Craig said emphatically Sunday afternoon.
The NHL’s magic man when it comes to ice is up to his old tricks. People in and around hockey had serious concerns about a hockey rink going up at Ralph Wilson Stadium in less than half the allotted time the league had to build the ice surface at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton four years ago for the Heritage Classic – the NHL’s first outdoor foray for a regular-season game.
So far so good. Craig had his staff split up and work 12-hour shifts so that it was nearly non-stop 24/7 since last Sunday night at 7 p.m. The result? As of Sunday afternoon, they were pretty much right on par with where things stood in Edmonton 48 hours out from game time.
“The rink itself looks fairly well ready to go,” Craig allowed himself to say. “We’re ready to go, let’s drop the puck and play hockey.”
Another minor miracle from the man most famously associated with ice making. Officially titled the NHL’s facility operations manager, the league plucked Craig from Edmonton in 1997 after he made his name giving the high-flying Oilers the best ice in the NHL for more than a decade. He’s been at it for 30 years since his early beginnings in Jasper, Alta.
“There is nobody anywhere who can do what he does – he’s simply the best,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told The Canadian Press on Sunday.
Craig faced another huge task right from the get-go this season when he arrived in London, England, for the regular-season openers between Anaheim and Los Angeles at the 02 Arena. Seven days before the first game, there was no ice.
“We had enough days but it was a brand-new piece of equipment,” Craig recalled Sunday. “It had never been run and ice had never been put in there.
“It was a big challenge, and you’re working with people you’ve never worked with before. You’re trying to learn a new system and there’s no history or information there to go back on.”
Craig pulled it off and not a single player complained. That’s what he’s hoping for Monday afternoon when the Sabres and Penguins practice on the outdoor rink. Until then, no matter how good it looks, Craig says it’s impossible to tell where it stands compared to Edmonton four years ago.
“I definitely have to wait until they practice,” said Craig, 52. “Until we get the guys out there and get a good skate on it, and see how it reacts after 10 minutes, after 15 minutes, after 20 minutes, and how they feel, we’ll have to wait until that time until we figure that out.”
Craig went for the first skate on the ice surface Sunday and allowed the Zambonis to flood for the first time as well.
“It had a good feel to it, a good base to it,” Craig said of skating on it. “And it was more for me just to get out there and get a feel for the atmosphere itself as much as the ice.
“There’s a couple of zones that in my mind I wanted to make sure we were fine. In front of one net, the other night we had rain and wind, it put a little something there that I wanted to make sure we were as solid as I thought we should be. And everything is good right now.”
Of course, even the best ice man in the world can’t control the weather and the weather is wildly unpredictable around Buffalo. For instance, who would have ever imagined organizers would need to truck in some snow to lay down around the rink? That’s exactly what happened all weekend long because abnormally warm temperatures over the last week melted away most of the snow in the region.
The weather forecast for Tuesday is a high of 1 C with a 70 per cent chance of snow.
“Thankfully, and we’re keeping our fingers crossed, we’re going to get pretty good weather conditions it would appear,” said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
Rain is not what anybody wants Tuesday. But snow? That’s fine, Craig said.
“We take the machine out, shave it up, take the snow off, dump it off, resurface with the hot water and we’re ready to go,” he said. “It can snow and we’ll just remove it with the machines – no problems.”
If it snows too heavily, however, visibility might be a factor for the players,and then there’s a safety issue. Bettman has the power to delay the game or temporarily stop it after it’s begun. It’s his call.
Craig watches the weather forecast every second he gets.
“Channel 49, automatically, as soon as I walk into the (hotel) room,” Craig said with a laugh. “You have to know what’s coming.
“The first four days I got here I was looking at Colorado, looking into the Pacific, knowing there were four (weather) systems sitting back to back, ‘Where are they going? Where are they coming? Where’s the pressure from the south? Is it going to push us?’ You know it’ll be on us in 30 hours or so.”
He’s barely slept since last Sunday, and has made middle-of-the-night trips to the stadium to check on his baby. Sleep can wait for another day. The pressure is huge.
“There’s as much on the line here as there is in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final,” said Craig. “That’s how I classify it.
“The concentration level is huge. That’s what I want – to make sure that everybody comes with their A-game.”