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Craig, ice truck converge at Fenway Park

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

"It's mind boggling. Yes, it's my third (Winter Classic) and truly it's my fourth outdoor game (counting the Heritage Classic in 2003), and when I talk to my mom she just says, 'Look at where your career has taken you.' You've got to pinch yourself and say, 'Yeah, I'm doing this for the best game in the world.' That's why we're here. You put your guys together, you put the rink together and you do it for the fans, for the game of hockey. That's why we have our jobs." -- Dan Craig

BOSTON -- Sitting in the passenger's seat of the world's most famous refrigeration truck as it rolled down Van Ness Street, Dan Craig couldn't believe what he was staring at.

Eight camera crews, another dozen photographers and who knows how many reporters were there to greet the foremost Iceman in the hockey world and his favorite mobile toy.

"That was bizarre," said Craig, whose official title is NHL Facilities Operations Manager.

Craig thought of a friend and former hockey companion who just two weeks ago passed away. He thought of recent eye-opening conversations he's had with his mother, who reminded him just how far he's come in his career from the small town of Jasper, Alta. (population 5,000), to Fenway Park.

The build-out for the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic officially got under way Thursday inside the world's oldest baseball stadium and Craig, the star of the show until the Flyers and Bruins arrive for practice Dec. 31, couldn't hide his excitement.

"It's mind boggling," he said. "Yes, it's my third (Winter Classic) and truly it's my fourth outdoor game (counting the Heritage Classic in 2003), and when I talk to my mom she just says, 'Look at where your career has taken you.' You've got to pinch yourself and say, 'Yeah, I'm doing this for the best game in the world.' That's why we're here. You put your guys together, you put the rink together and you do it for the fans, for the game of hockey. That's why we have our jobs."

Craig said he wasn't nervous at all Thursday and he didn't appear to be, either, which is a pretty amazing sign of just how far he and the NHL have come since the inaugural Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, on Jan. 1, 2008.

They announced the venue for that game in September and went in blind Dec. 23 after the Bills hosted the New York Giants. There was little to no fanfare because the League really didn't know what it was getting into.

The workers were welcomed into Western New York by 60 mile-per-hour winds that were blowing tarps, plywood and bodies all over the field. They were not workable conditions.

After eight days of pure stress, enough to make anyone question their career choice, the game turned into a classic as a Buffalo blizzard transformed Ralph Wilson Stadium into a snow-globe of mythic proportions.

Craig, though, was tortured.

Leading up to the event he didn't sleep. His job of making suitable ice for NHL players didn't allow him to. He was working with foreign equipment and a crew he didn't know well or trust.

If that wasn't enough, during the game Craig was on the ice as much as the Penguins' Jarkko Ruutu or Buffalo's Andrew Peters, who combined played just over 10 minutes. He had to fix potholes in the ice and the Zambonis had to work overtime before Sidney Crosby ended the inaugural Winter Classic with his historic shootout winner.

As great as it was and as well as it was received, Craig refused to work in those conditions again, so he went to bat for himself and the League and said in order to make the Winter Classic an annual event, he would need his own refrigeration equipment and his own ice crew.

He got both last year for the 2009 game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, but as much as he trusted his handpicked crew, it was the first time the equipment was put to the test.

It passed with flying colors, which leads us back to Craig's calm demeanor Thursday.

"I don't know right now when my nerves are going to kick in because last year the nerves were from me going way out on a limb the year before and saying we need a new system," Craig said. "You say to yourself that you know you're making the right call, so just make sure it works. Now you know it works and we're putting our crew back together and it's a big confidence.

"I think (I'll get nervous) around the 29th or 30th when more people are arriving after the holiday break, and you're just sitting there going, 'OK, now it's real. Now it's really real.' "

Craig wants it to be "really real" this weekend, and under normal circumstances it could be. He could have the ice ready for an NHL game by Sunday or Monday at the latest since it takes only 72 hours to make it with his new portable system.

He instead has until 9 a.m. on Dec. 18 to have a sheet of ice that is roughly an inch and a quarter thick installed for when the city of Boston takes over the rink for public skating through Christmas.

Craig and his staff don't even have to paint the sheet white, which would require another day of work. They just have to put down some markings and off they go.

Craig has time, a luxury not afforded to him in Buffalo two years ago and only partially afforded to him in Chicago last year.

"Watching paint dry, watching grass grow," Craig said when asked what people would see over the next few days. "There won't be a whole lot going on. The foundation is going to be done and really the biggest part of what you could see is going to happen in the next 12 hours and that's getting the base of the rink in place."

An extra day was built into the schedule just to account for Mother Nature.

"If they can do as much (Friday) as they are doing (Thursday), even half of Saturday, they are going to be trying to find things to do," Craig said. "Sunday was really our bonus day in case we ran into bad weather so they will be here but very minimal work will be done. We'll be ready for Monday morning."

That's when things will get a little crazier as the ice crew goes to work in the middle of a circus of construction all over the field. They will be putting up the boards, constructing the benches and penalty boxes, building the broadcast perches, etc.

"It's going to be mayhem," Craig said. "We're going to have trucks coming and going, parts coming off of trucks, pipes coming off of trucks, guys running one way and going the other way and trying not to run people over and trying to get things out onto the floor and hooking things together. It's going to be a lot of ants going in a lot of different directions."

By Tuesday night or Wednesday at the latest, the hoses will be out and the crew will be spraying a fine layer of mist over top of the surface to create the inch and a quarter of ice they promised the city of Boston.

That's when Mother Nature really dictates the schedule shift for Craig's crew.

If they have to be outside at 3 a.m. because that's the best time to spray the hoses and make the ice, they will be.

"This crew was handpicked and they have passion," Craig said. "They can make ice at any time like you would with your son, like I did with my son. There is nothing more peaceful than being out spraying at 3 a.m., when you know the best players in the world are going to play on it."

Craig, though, appeared to find that same sense of peace Thursday as he sat inside his favorite toy as it rolled into Boston and stopped on Van Ness Street, merely 10 feet from the famous brick building that will become the center of the hockey universe on New Year's Day.

"The No. 1 thing I thought of … you've come a long ways out of the mountains and now to this," Craig said. "Downtown Boston? I'm just like, wow."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.