Men work on an insulated tarp that covers the ice ahead of the NHL Winter Classic hockey game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, in Philadelphia, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. When the Flyers host the Penguins on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, it’ll be the 27th NHL outdoor game since 2003, and next season’s Winter Classic is at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. There’s no fear of the variable climate in Texas in early January and almost no limit to where these games can go. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Innovations allow NHL to stage outdoor games almost anywhere

The Dodger Stadium experience showed the NHL’s ice crew it could adapt to just about any situation

Dan Craig sleeps maybe four hours a night leading up to outdoor games. He only goes out to dinner because he can check the status of the ice on his phone.

“Your mind’s always going,” said Craig, the NHL’s vice-president of facilities operations.

After staging outdoor games in a deep freeze (Edmonton) and summerlike warmth (Los Angeles), the NHL seems capable of taking hockey outside just about anywhere in the U.S. and Canada knowing the ice will be almost as good as the sheets found inside.

When the Flyers host the Penguins on Saturday night, it will be the 27th NHL outdoor game since 2003. Next season’s Winter Classic is at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where the average high on Jan. 1 is 56 degrees (13.3 Celsius).

No worries, hockey fans.

“We put the parameters out there as into what we feel the challenges are going to be at a certain climate in a certain area and this is what we’re going to run up against,” said Craig, who has worked all but two outdoor games. “And if we have to go to get different equipment, we go get different equipment. If we need more staff, we just go get more qualified people to come in and give us a hand to make sure that everything works the way it’s supposed to.”

Weather is the biggest hurdle that can’t be controlled. It is instead managed by Craig, his son Mike, senior facilities operations manager Derek King and the 100-person crews that work each game. As he sat on the boards Thursday at Lincoln Financial Field, Craig pointed to the sky and acknowledged the swirling wind was on his mind.

Still, improved technology and techniques learned over the past 15 years have helped perfect the science and execution of making and maintaining outdoor ice.

“It seems like they’ve streamlined the process so they know how to react and how to handle different elements,” said Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk, a veteran of five outdoor games. “For the last few that I’ve been in, it’s all been pretty good. … If you can start with that, that leads to a better product in the game.”

It starts with a 53-foot refrigeration truck that feeds coolant into aluminum trays set up on the field, and while indoor facilities have ice typically an inch or so deep, outdoor rinks go beyond 2 inches to protect the surface from the elements. Smaller Zambonis have less impact on the ice, and covering the surface with heat-reflecting insulation tarps helps. The ice can be monitored with sensors that provide real-time readings to a smartphone app.

The ideal ice temperature is 22 degrees (-5.5 Celsius), but all was fine in Denver in 2016 when the air temperature was 65 (18.3 Celsius) because officials can just turn the A/C up.

“When we’re monitoring the air temperature we’ll just make the sheet colder,” King said. “If we can keep it in the in the mid-40s, it would be great. But we’ve got a lot of control. … We have a lot of control of the truck, so we can manipulate our temperatures on the sheet with the air temperature.”

Craig remembers the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor: The snow shovelling started at 5 a.m. and never really stopped. The sun has been just as big an impediment — it delayed the 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia because the glare was considered a danger to players. The ice at the 2011 Heritage Classic in Calgary had to be covered because it was so cold there were worries the surface would crack, the most concerned Craig has ever been.

The tarps with air bubbles inside became a mainstay beginning in 2014 at Dodger Stadium to combat the Southern California sun as temperatures soared to almost 80 (26.7 Celsius) in the days before the game.

“Sun was a huge issue for us in just the temperature on the ice, so we kind of came up with a system of how to cover the ice and reflect that sun,” King said. “We still use those same ideas anywhere we go.”

The Dodger Stadium experience showed the NHL’s ice crew it could adapt to just about any situation. Previous weather dilemmas also taught Craig and his staff they couldn’t just leave snow on the ice like so many nature-made rinks in cold climates, which paid dividends this week in Philadelphia when snow turned to sleet and then rain.

“Everybody’s looking at us like, ‘Why don’t you just leave the snow?’ Well, it’s going to cause us 18 hours of work if we don’t get the snow off, like, right now,” Craig said. “(If) it happened to rain, the top is going to freeze and then the bottom is going to be nice and soft. Well, no. Where we were, it just goes all the way through and then it freezes to the bottom. Those are the types of things that we have learned over time: how to manage the different circumstances that were put into.”

READ MORE: Women’s hockey trending after NHL all-star skills event

READ MORE: Lehner posts 4th shutout as Isles blank Canucks 4-0

There are three more outdoor games next season — in Regina, Saskatchewan, Dallas and the Air Force Academy in Colorado — and trips to Nashville and maybe even Las Vegas could be coming someday.

Craig doesn’t see any challenge as too daunting and he is focused on giving players an unforgettable experience.

“They step out there for the first time and they do about three laps around and the grins and their eyes are just phenomenal,” he said. “They’ve always been in organized hockey, they’ve always been indoors, they’ve always travelled and all of a sudden they get their chance. That’s when you see the guys and you just see them, they’re beaming because this the first time, they’re getting paid for it, they’re playing a game that they love and they’re playing it outdoors where we started.”

___

Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Lacombe Police Service arrests two in possession of stolen property, cocaine, meth

LPS notified of a stolen trailer stolen from the Lacombe area for sale on a local sales site.

Lacombe Police Services arrests car thief in possession of meth

Red Deer woman’s outstanding warrants lead to arrest

Lacombe Police Service warns of gold/jewelry scammers

The gold/jewelry presented turns out to be fake

New assistant principal at Blackfalds’ Iron Ridge Intermediate Campus

Lacey Elliott has been a teacher at Ponoka Secondary Campus since 2008

VIDEO: LCHS Hair Massacure supports children’s charities

Event supports kids living with cancer

Body of missing snowmobiler recovered from Great Slave Lake

Police confirm the body is that of one of three missing snowmobilers

Is vegan food a human right? Ontario firefighter battling B.C. blaze argues it is

Adam Knauff says he had to go hungry some days because there was no vegan food

Winds helping in battle against fire threatening northern Alberta town

Nearly 5,000 people have cleared out of High Level and nearby First Nation

Federal government funds millions to help B.C. police spot drugged driving

Many police departments have expressed wariness about using the only government-approved roadside test

Judge: Mississippi 6-week abortion ban ‘smacks of defiance’

The new law would prohibit most abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected

Justin Trudeau credits immigration for Canada’s growing tech sector

Trudeau stressed that Canada has become a major source of talent for tech all over the world

Feds launch tourism strategy designed to boost sector 25 per cent by 2025

The fund is supposed to back experiences that show off Canada’s strengths

Growing wildfire prompts evacuation of High Level, Alta.

Chuckegg Creek fire has been burning for several days, but grew substantially Sunday

Most Read