Legendary Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Tony Esposito stole the show Tuesday afternoon at Soldier Field.
After hopping out of a refrigeration truck along with Dan Craig, the NHL's senior director of facility operations, Esposito delivered a memorable punch line when asked if he would've enjoyed playing a game in the historic home of the Chicago Bears.
"That would've been great," Esposito said, smiling. "That's [60,000] people, so that's 40,000 more people that would've booed me."
Thus began the next installment of the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series, which will take place March 1 on a rink at Soldier Field that Craig and his ice crew will soon construct. The game will feature the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, but Tuesday was all about Esposito and Craig, who joked that his biggest challenge in Chicago might be the fact he wore a T-shirt for his previous rink build at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Temperatures crept into the low-40s Tuesday with gusting winds, but it felt much warmer to the locals after a month-long stretch of polar conditions. The forecast calls for rain Thursday, when Craig's crew is scheduled to officially start constructing the rink, but it's supposed to dip back down with more snow possible this weekend.
Chicago weather at this time of year can often be unpredictable, but Craig and his crew members have quite a few prior experiences to pull from, including the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic held on the North side of Chicago at Wrigley Field.
In fact, they're using the same exact refrigeration truck that provided the ice for that game.
"I think a lot of our guys are very much aware of what we're going to be up against," Craig said. "We're watching the weather 10 to 14 days out now, and as you can see, we're almost 40 degrees and in three or four days we're going to be back down into the mid-20s again. So, you wake up in the morning and whatever Mother Nature gives you, you deal with it."
That goes for extreme cold too, much like the Chicago area has gotten the past month. Craig said the coldest temperatures he's ever set up rinks in happened during the Heritage Classic games held in Edmonton (2003) and Calgary (2011), when each time it was zero degrees at the drop of the puck.
"Those were too cold," Craig said. "On this type of a system, it becomes very cold and that's where you have to pull a few tricks out of the bag and make it work. We still play the game and everybody has a good time."
Chicago has dipped to below minus-10 several times in the past month, but Craig said the game would still be played as planned.
Same goes for snow, which his crews have already dealt with in large amounts at the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., and at Yankee Stadium in New York for other NHL Stadium Series contests this year.
"Michigan was probably as hard as we've wanted to deal with [in removing snow]," Craig said. "That's what our crew is there for. There's a lot of times we have 10 or 12 guys there and people wonder why we have that many. Well, with a day like that, that's why we have that many ... so we can carry on the game, it's within the time frame that we want it to be, everybody has a great time and the game is fantastic."
Esposito has a little less disdain for snow. He still recalls fondly the days of playing hockey outdoors on homemade rinks in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, staying out all day in whatever conditions the winters threw at them.
This year's NHL Winter Classic took him back to those days, when the snow made Michigan Stadium look like a giant snow globe.
"When the snow started to fall, it just reminded me of when I was kid," Esposito said. "You're out there playing, and the puck gets lost in the snow and stuff like that. It's just a lot of fun. The guys all love it, I know that."
They don't always love what happens to the ice conditions, but the League's ice crew practically has it down to a science by now. They've battled drizzle, sleet, snow, cold and even found a way to create a nice playing surface at Dodger Stadium in above-average temperatures.
Esposito has taken notice.
"The thing that amazes me is the quality [of ice] they get, because the conditions vary so much," he said. "You could be in 10 degrees or in 50 degrees, so you have to give the ice crew a lot of credit to be able to maintain that ice for such a quality product."
Craig was asked Tuesday if 60 or 70 degree temperatures would be too warm for the game in Chicago. His deadpan answer raised eyebrows.
"Well, I was in L.A. and it was 84 [degrees]," he said. "I don't think we're going to hit 84 in Chicago anytime soon."
It's still an unpredictable climate that will likely test him and his team. Judging from past rinks builds, however, they'll most likely pull it off with their usual level of high-quality ice.
"I think I just was [challenged]," Craig said of the NHL Stadium Series games added to the usual NHL Winter Classic. "Moving forward, that's what I told our crew when we selected everybody, is this season basically tells us where we're going to go and what we're going to do in the future. This is what it's about. We want to bring the game back outdoors where it belongs. We love it. Players love it. This is what we want to do."
As for Craig, getting to know so many iconic venues better than most is one of the biggest perks of his job. The last time he worked outdoors in Chicago, he set up the rink for the game at Wrigley Field. Now he's back in the city's other historic venue, Soldier Field, after trips to Michigan Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Yankee Stadium.
"Being the sports person I am, it's very unique to be involved in these facilities, especially growing up in Western Canada," Craig said, as he prepared to work at Soldier Field. "Never mind being in a place, but working in a place and basically living there for three weeks [and] knowing every nook and cranny of every iconic facility that we're in, to me, it's amazing to be put in that position."
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