Craig Eager To Start Building Wrigley Rink
Come Thanksgiving, Craig expects to be overcome by anticipation.
"I want to see it," Craig, the League's Facilities Operations Manager, told NHL.com. "I want to feel it. I want to see the players enjoy it and for all of us to put on a good show for TV and the people that are in the stadium."
The NHL will be bringing its second Winter Classic to Chicago on Jan. 1 when the Blackhawks host the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field, but Craig said the process of making the NHL's third regular-season outdoor game possible has already started.
Unlike last year's inaugural Winter Classic in Buffalo, where Craig worked with a contracted company to build the floor for the rink and rented the refrigeration units to freeze the ice, this year the NHL is building its own floor, is buying its own, portable freezing units and will use NHL arena personnel for the project.
"The crew I'm putting together, they're all from NHL buildings," Craig said. "They live it everyday. They know what it takes."
Craig said the floor, which will be made of five aluminum plates that will have to be put together like a jigsaw puzzle, is currently being manufactured in Anaheim. It will be transported to Chicago and brought into Wrigley Field on Dec. 17, when the League takes over the historic venue for its historic game.
Craig and his staff didn't arrive in Buffalo last year until Dec. 22 and had to wait until after a Buffalo Bills game against the New York Giants the following day to roll in the trucks and start construction from scratch.
"I have a better comfort zone because it's a piece of equipment that the NHL is going to own and it's a portable floor that I have worked with in the past," Craig said. "It's a new venture for the League, so we're bringing in people that I have worked with before so it will be less stress for me because I can leave for the day and know things are going to get done. That's where the comfort zone is going to be for me."
Craig said another positive to occupying the baseball venue on Dec. 17 as opposed to a football venue on Dec. 23 is every person on staff will be allowed to return home to their families for Christmas. Last year, the staff worked right through the holiday.
"We'll make sure we'll get everybody home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and bring them all back the next day," Craig said. "We gave away Christmas Eve and Christmas Day last year, and I said I would never put that on anybody again."
Craig's plan is to have the rink built before the staff leaves for the holiday, so when they return on Dec. 26 all that will be left to do is build up the ice, seal it, paint it, flood it and skate on it.
He anticipates time for numerous floods and skates before the Red Wings and Blackhawks step foot on to the ice, but each team will have the opportunity for more than one practice session on the ice before the New Year's Day game. But the schedule does not seem favorable for either team considering the Hawks and Wings play in Detroit on Dec. 30. Chicago has a home game on Dec. 26, but travels to Minnesota for Dec. 28. The Wings play in Colorado on Dec. 27.
For each team to practice on the new surface twice, the Wings would have to fly to Chicago before returning home to Detroit, and the Hawks would have to practice at Wrigley Field on Dec. 27.
The Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins only got in one practice session at Ralph Wilson Stadium before the game last season.
"The ice will be ready for them, but you can't have one team on more than the other one," Craig insisted. "It would be good to get on them twice. It helps me mature the ice and figure out how it works out properly and how much I have to re-surface."
The project does have its own obstacles. One of the main problems Craig anticipates facing is wind, which can blow frantically off of Lake Michigan. Wind and heat are two enemies to creating ice, but you can't fight Mother Nature.
"I don't know how the wind affects anything inside that stadium," Craig said. "That is an element we have no control over but we have to try to work with it and manipulate our system to work with it."
Another issue is the maintenance area that will house the Zamboni machines is open to the elements, so Craig said they will have to build a tent for the machines and add some canvas behind them to act as a wall in order to keep the machines from freezing.
"It opens right to the street, so if there is wind it is coming right over your shoulders," Craig said. "It won't be closed off, but we'll put up some canvas and stuff and put in some big blow heaters to warm that area up for the Zambonis and hoses. If we get down to 15 degrees and do a flood and then try to go back a half-hour later, we'll freeze up."
The ideal conditions would be temperatures around the freezing mark with no precipitation, but even Craig knows last year's Western New York snowfall added a unique beauty to the game and image for viewers at home.
"If we end up with a day like we had in Buffalo, I'd be happy," Craig said. "That was almost letter perfect for temperature. I'd rather there would be no snow, but it didn't bother me."
What did, though, is he never felt like he could enjoy the event because of the time crunch leading up to it and the problems that came along with it. With some extra days, a pre-built floor and familiar faces working beside him, Craig can't wait to truly get into the spirit of the thing.
"That's why it's nice to have those extra days," Craig said. "Once it's together we can take our time, build the sheet of ice, go home with our families, and go back and really enjoy the event."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer