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Homework has already begun for rink-builder Craig

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Homework has already begun for rink-builder Craig
Dan Craig doesn't get to start building the Winter Classic rink until after the Steelers play on Thursday night, but he is already preparing.
Dan Craig watched from his couch as CBS's cameras caught fantastic images of the snow swirling around Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon during the Steelers' game against the Jets. Through his own television screen he could tell where snow was piling up, which end zone got worse, and in which direction the snow was blowing heaviest.

This wasn't just another Sunday on the couch for Craig. This was homework for a man who, starting around midnight Friday, will take over that very same field in Pittsburgh to begin its transformation into a hockey rink so the Penguins and Capitals have somewhere to play the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

"I did watch it as a fan, but it's one of those things where there are patches on the ground that I was watching within the field and I was watching the way the snow was swirling," Craig, the NHL's Facilities Operations Manager, said during a conference call Monday. "You take record of it. You say, 'OK, that's what is happening at this end zone and that end zone,' but until you stand there and really are able to work with it you (don't) get a true appreciation."

Craig, who will arrive in Pittsburgh on Monday night, will begin appreciating Heinz Field roughly an hour after the Steelers and Carolina Panthers complete their game Thursday. That's when the NHL takes over the stadium and begins preparing it for the Winter Classic on New Year's Day.

Craig and his 11-person crew will have until noon on Dec. 30th to create an NHL rink overtop the Steelers' gridiron. His schedule is all mapped out, but really it's up to Mother Nature to dictate the parameters.

"Every day that we have is going to present a challenge," said Craig, who has been with the NHL for 13 years. "That's why we have the crew that we have pulled together here. It's a matter of knowing what is coming, what challenges we'll have throughout the day. The weather patterns change throughout the day. You have a snapshot, but it's how you deal with it throughout the day. We're continually working and monitoring to create a game plan throughout the day for whatever Mother Nature gives us."

Technology allows Craig and his crew to do that.

They'll have the most sophisticated weather equipment so they'll know what's on the horizon before it's even on the horizon. They'll have a system built into the rink called Eye on the Ice, which will monitor the ice and send signals to Craig's Blackberry every 15 minutes so he'll always know how his ice is feeling -- too cold, too warm or just right.

This year they even added an in-line heating system that shouldn't allow the base floor beneath the ice to get too cold.

But none of that takes away from Craig's stress level. He already feels the tingles because he knows it's his responsibility to make sure nothing outside of Mother Nature ruins the NHL's time on the world's stage come Jan. 1.

"It is two points on the table and we are on the world's platform," Craig said. "I want to make sure that everybody has the ability to play the game at the highest level."

He's batting a thousand so far, but Pittsburgh will bring its own set of hurdles.

Right now the 10-day weather report calls for a daily dose of snow and temperatures in the mid- to upper 20s. Ideally, Craig would like to have overcast skies, zero precipitation and wind, and temperatures in the low 30s, but he'll work with whatever Mother Nature throws at him.

Flurries, slightly below optimal temperatures and some wind gusts barely raise his stress level.

"I must be a good Western Canadian guy because flurry to me means very little snow," Craig said. "I'm looking at a few snow showers and a little bit of wind. Snow showers and wind on the 28th and mostly cloudy on the 29th. We have a very good crew and we pick our spots. This thing is put together like a jigsaw and if we have to work together 20 feet at a time and shovel snow, work 20 feet and shovel snow, that's what we'll do.

"We are at the highest level of talent in the world and that's what we're showcasing here."

It's no wonder the guy does his homework.

"I already feel the jitters coming," Craig said.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl