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Technology, technique is better but making outdoor rinks still stresses ice guru

The outdoor rink in Buffalo was problematic. The ones in Chicago and Boston provided some tough moments, too. And don't even ask about the rink atop a swimming pool in Tokyo—Dan Craig still calls that his biggest challenge.

Over time, the various places the NHL has asked the ice guru to put down a surface have created all sorts of headaches for Craig.

The one element they all have in common?

"What remains constant is stress, because of the high calibre the players that we have," Craig, the NHL's facilities operations manager, said Monday on a conference call. "For me, that's what it is, because it is two 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."

The task before Craig now is to build the perfect outdoor rink at Heinz Field—home of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers—and make it good enough to properly showcase the NHL's two brightest stars in the Jan. 1 Winter Classic being hyped brilliantly through the HBO show "24/7 Penguins/Capitals Road to the Winter Classic."

No pressure.

"Yeah, there probably is more hype (this time)," Craig acknowledged. "But I don't think that adds any different pressure than what we've experienced in the past.

"As soon as this call is over, I'm going to jump in my vehicle. I'm going to the airport. I'm in Pittsburgh (Monday night). I can already feel the jitters coming. So it's the same as every other year. It's the same as any other major event that we've done."

The Bonnyville, Alta., native's done plenty of homework already, the most recent of which came Sunday, as he was watching the Steelers drop a 22-17 decision to the visiting New York Jets.

The TV cameras picked up the snow swirling at Heinz and Craig took note of the way it moved and what happened to it in the end zones. It was more food for thought before things get going.

The Steelers host Carolina on Thursday and Craig figures the field will be his around midnight. Work begins then, with the base of the rink and necessary pathways being put down overnight.

On Friday, the refrigeration trailer will be put into place, with generators hooked up to provide power. Once that's set, the containers for the ice floor will be brought down to the field, a process that should take 10-to-12 hours to complete.

By 9 p.m. on Christmas Day, Craig hopes to start building the ice, with the surface being ready for hockey lines, markings and logos on Dec. 28.

The first skate is set for the afternoon on Dec. 30, with the ice ready for full a day of action on Dec. 31 ahead of the New Year's Day game.

Of course, that's if all goes to plan and the weather co-operates. The long-term forecast calls for temperatures below freezing but also flurries almost every day in the leadup to the game, which could throw a wrench in the plans.

"Every day that we have is going to present a challenge," said Craig. "It is a matter of knowing what is coming, what challenges that we're going to have throughout the day, because weather patterns—it doesn't matter where you live—the weather patterns can change throughout the day.

"We're continually looking and continually monitoring trying to keep ahead of and create a game plan throughout the day of how to handle whatever Mother Nature gives us."

Craig calls the outdoor ice rink he built in Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium for the NHL's first Winter Classic in 2008 the most problematic, while he was much happier with the surfaces at Chicago's Wrigley Field in 2009 and Boston's Fenway Park this year.

An inline heating system will allow Craig and his crew to adjust the ice in case it gets too cold outside—as it did in Boston—while instrumentation they will put inside in the ice will allow them to monitor and trend its condition.

One thing Craig will not do is get feedback from players. Thanks to his 10 years of experience with the Edmonton Oilers, and 13 with the NHL, he already knows what they're going to say.

"The only time they see me is on practice day prior to," said Craig. "I introduce myself, this is what we're going to do, this is what we're going about.

"Being in the industry as long as I have, and with the talent that I'm surrounded with, with my crew, I don't need players to expressly tell me what they're feeling out there because I can see it. 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.

"Once the game is over, we want them to have enjoyed the time that they had with the NHL Winter Classic, and we move forward."


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