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With Winter Classic nearing, weather concerns continue to permeate

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The man in charge of making the ice for the NHL's Winter Classic outdoor game isn't letting ominous weather forecasts cloud his outlook.

Dan Craig surveyed the temporary surface at Heinz Field on Wednesday afternoon and was encouraged by what he saw. With so much focus on the bad weather being predicted for Saturday (11 C with rain, according to, Craig noted the positive conditions since his crew moved in Dec. 23 have enabled them to get ahead of schedule.

"We're in good shape," he said.

This is the fourth straight year Craig has overseen the construction of an outdoor rink for the Jan. 1 game. He's optimistic the league's refrigeration system—which was purchased before the 2009 game at Wrigley Field in Chicago—will allow his crew to have the ice ready for the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, no matter the conditions.

"We don't rely on anybody else," said Craig. "We know the equipment that we have. It was specially ordered for us, specially built for us. I look at this thing as a very big challenge—every game is a big challenge.

"This is why we built the truck. We know what this truck can do to a point and we're probably going to find wherever that limit us. I have yet to find the limit on this truck and what I can do with it."

There are three criteria that will be used in the event bad weather hits the area Saturday: the safety of players; the safety of fans; and the quality of the ice surface.

The NHL has drafted extensive contingency plans for the event and is expected to release them Thursday. The game is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, but the league has the option of starting it as late as 8 p.m. in the case of bad weather.

If they can't get it in Saturday, it will be held at noon Sunday.

"We're fortunate we have this window with NBC," said Brian Jennings, the NHL's executive vice-president of marketing. "We obviously go into that type of planning and preparation. All the things we can control, we do. The weather, which we can't control ... that's why we build in that Jan. 2 date to enable us to get it executed."

Mother Nature has been pretty kind to the event. The temperatures were chilly, but comfortable, last year at Fenway Park in Boston and two years ago in Chicago. Even though snow caused some visibility issues at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo in 2008, the game came off without a hitch.

The worst conditions were seen in the first outdoor game, which was played in temperatures as low as -30 C at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium.

While the weather is always a central theme when the NHL goes outdoors, the thing that makes this year's game notable is the presence of its two biggest stars. Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby have created an interest greater than anything the league has previously seen.

"This year we wanted to put Alex and Sid up on the main platform," said Jennings. "This is going to be a special game.

"These two players have never disappointed our fans when they're on the ice. Taking the game outside, it's going to be another special moment."

With uncertain weather conditions, there is bound to be some tense moments for league officials in the days leading up to Jan. 1.

The ice surface will be tested with a media skate Thursday and a Pittsburgh-Washington alumni game will be held Friday morning. The Penguins and Capitals are each scheduled to hold practices later that afternoon.

Even though the weather forecast wasn't looking favourable as of Wednesday afternoon, it wasn't causing much concern for Craig.

"Talk to us 24 hours out and really see where the weather pattern is coming from," he said. "There's no moisture that's heavy enough right now that's going to slow down the process of preparing the sheet of ice."



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