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Craig and crew calm amidst the storm

Saturday, 12.27.2008 / 7:01 PM / Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

CHICAGO -- Thunderstorms. High winds. Flash floods. Record high temperatures. Even a tornado watch for a few hours, if you can believe it.

The crazy weather dominated the headlines in Chicago Saturday, but inside the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field there was a sense of calm amid Mother Nature's wild ebb and flow.

According to NHL Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig, the unlikely weather that hit Chicago Saturday has had little to no effect at all on the build-up for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day.

Maybe it set the crew back 12-18 hours, forcing them to wait to shave the ice with a Zamboni and paint it white until Sunday morning instead of doing it Saturday afternoon, but the rain helped and the 60-degree temperature had no affect at all.

"We were ahead of schedule and we could even slide one more day if we had to," Craig told NHL.com. "We can go into a normal facility and build a sheet of ice in 48 hours. We are at our base right now. We just have to clean it up and get ready to paint. As soon as Mother Nature gives us the window, we're going to paint."

There was no window Saturday as the forecast by 2 p.m. CT called for more rain, high winds and yes, perhaps a tornado in the Chicagoland area. The rain fell in spurts throughout the morning and steadily throughout the afternoon, but that wasn't bad news.

"Mother Nature has done it for us," Don Moffatt, the NHL's Facilities Operations Supervisor, told NHL.com. "We don't have to build any more ice. It's going to rain, we're going to freeze it, it'll level out and we'll bring the machines out to make it nice and smooth and then we'll hose it again after we paint to seal it in."

Things weren't looking so rosy when the crew arrived back at Wrigley Field Friday night from their three-day holiday break.
First off, many of the crew members experienced flight delays and some, including Craig, arrived in Chicago without their luggage. Two members couldn't even land in the city Friday night due to the closing of Midway Airport at around 6 p.m. CT. A dense fog covered the city's skyline.

Francois Martindale, who is from the ice crew at the Bell Centre in Montreal, flew into St. Louis, but because it was an international flight he couldn't de-plane. He wound up back in Montreal, Craig said.

"We have a couple of guys circling in the air hoping to land here," Craig said in the afternoon. "We had people all over the continent (Friday) night with flight delays. We're still a few members short on our staff."

When the members of the crew that did arrive Friday got to Wrigley Field in the evening, they didn't like what they saw. Due to the snow, then sleet, then rain and warm weather, there were scattered air pockets just below the ice surface.

"What has happened is you have a layer of solid, then your snow and now your sleet, so it's like an Oreo cookie," Craig said. "Wherever there is snow, there is air trapped in there and we need to get water down into there to get rid of that."

Craig said the crew was even thinking about melting the entire ice surface and starting from scratch.

"There was a choice to be made and if we would have drawn straws (Friday) night the bet would have been we were pulling the sheet (Saturday) and starting over from scratch, which is not that big of a deal," he said. "It happens in other facilities, but it would have been a matter of timing and being able to dispose of it. The way it rained last night, the equipment kept up with it and we're ready to get right at this thing."

So, instead of starting over Saturday the crew went onto the ice with drills and started making quarter-inch holes where the air pockets had formed. The base of the ice sheet is still solid, so there was no concern on Craig's end about that.

"Where the white spots are there is air, so we drill down about a quarter of an inch and that allows the water to seep down and fill that up," Moffatt said. "It will turn from white to gray and it will be a nice solid sheet."

Don Renzulli, the NHL's Senior Vice President of Events and Entertainment, mentioned during Saturday afternoon's media briefing that everything is well ahead of schedule when you compare it to last year's Winter Classic build-up in Buffalo.

The NHL had only a week to get Ralph Wilson Stadium ready for a hockey game, but crews have been working in Wrigley Field since the middle of this month, save for a three-day holiday break.

"If you look at our schedule, last year at this time we were just laying down the mat and putting sand on the rink and I think we started to build the boards today," Renzulli said. "If you look outside, you can see we're well beyond that. The boards are up and the ice is down. Our network booths are up. The video boards are going up as we speak. We're well beyond where we were last year. Outside of Mother Nature taking a little turn on us we're doing pretty well."

The weather forecast for Sunday is promising, with temperatures predicted to be in the high 20s or low 30s and only a 20 percent chance of precipitation. It could be windy, which can have an adverse affect on ice making, but then again, this is Chicago.

Craig said it would take roughly 10 hours total to paint the ice white, seal it up "so it doesn't run away from us," and get the lines, circles, dots, trapezoids and logos painted.

That's the goal for Sunday.

"It all depends on how Mother Nature handles us," he said. "Our guys are prepared to work 24 hours a day. I have the best crew on the continent put together here so I have no worries about it whatsoever."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com