FOXBOROUGH — As soon as the Patriots completed their defeat of the Tennessee Titans on December 20, it began.
The 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic is just under two weeks away, and thus, as of Dec. 20 at about 4 p.m., out went the turf and in came the ice crew as Gillette Stadium began its transformation into an ice hockey rink.
“Right after the Patriots game, our overnight crew started setting up [Sunday] night,” said Dan Craig, the NHL’s senior director of facilities operations. “Goal posts came down, and all of the trucks were being offloaded. The field was marked so that we were square and centered, and then the staging company came in this morning and, as you can see, started staging.”
Craig, speaking from the club seats at Gillette, stopped and gestured down at the football field. Already, the midfield Patriots logo had been almost completely obscured by the flooring that will soon become a rink.
“Here we are now,” Craig said. “By the end of tonight, we have an overnight crew to put ice pans together, and it will start to look like a hockey rink by noon [Tuesday].”
Earlier on Monday morning, Craig and his crew welcomed the official Winter Classic ice truck —adorned with the Bruins and Canadiens logos — to Foxborough. The ice will go down shortly before Christmas; the day after the holiday, it will be painted white, and soon after that, the logos and lines will be applied.
“There’s going to be hundreds of people working in here in the next six, seven, eight days,” Craig said. “There will be a crew probably of 80 people working in here right now, today, and then there will be another probably 35 tonight, and then another 80 tomorrow. It just goes on and on and on.
“So we’re talking hundreds of man hours. Hundreds and thousands of man hours to get this together.”
Shortly thereafter, Craig and his crew of 12 will be the first to take the ice at Gillette. That, Craig said, is a truly indescribable moment.
“It’s an accomplishment,” Craig said. “It’s a lot of hard work. But for me, it’s not only being with the guys, but it’s knowing that for this community, for this team, for all of the hockey world — this is why we do it, and for my guys to be able to jump out there and have the smile, that’s great. But when you see everybody else go out there and enjoy it, that’s what it’s all about.”
Craig has been down this road before — many times, in fact, since taking over the Winter Classic ice buildout in 2009. He has installed ice across the country, from California to New York, in a variety of climates — in blistering cold and on the balmy West Coast.
No matter what, though, there is always one common factor that concerns Craig, above all else: ensuring that the ice feels just as natural outdoors as it does within the confines of any indoor stadium.
“I really know what I’m looking for when the guys are out there,” he said. “I just want the guys to enjoy the moment. The last thing you want a hockey player to worry about is what’s underneath his feet, so you just go out there and watch their expression and really, you can see by them talking to each other what they’re really talking about, and there’s a little jump in their feet when they get out there. It’s pretty cool.”
While there has been a Winter Classic every year since the inaugural event in Buffalo in 2008, this one is particularly special. It features two Original Six teams, two storied NHL franchises whose rivalry is perhaps the greatest in all of professional sports.
“We’re going to have a lot of fans from Montreal coming down — I think over 10,000 people purchased tickets up there,” said Don Renzulli, the executive vice president tot NHL events. “So they’ll have a good contingent up there, and I think when you get down there, it’s always a great game when they play. I think this [rivalry] is actually going to add to [the event].”
The weather, of course, always plays a significant part in the success of the event. Current forecasts call for unseasonably high temperatures on Christmas — temperatures could rise as high as 62 on the 25th — but according to Craig, the ice will not be impacted.
“The thing is, what we’re seeing right now in the forecast is a few showers, and that’s leading up to game day — [there’s] nothing on the radar right now for game day, as we see it this far out,” he said. “As we all know, Mother Nature could change things around, and we could have a great snowy day.”
It’s not hard to recall the near-perfect weather conditions for the first Winter Classic in New England, which took place at Fenway Park in 2010. It was an overcast day, not too warm or too cold, with light snow flurries.
If Mother Nature brings about a similar forecast on New Year’s Day 2016, that would be ideal, Craig said. For him, the perfect temperature would be right around 26 to 28 degrees, but even if the temperature rises as high as 34, all will be well.
“That’s the thing: If you’re a little bit warmer, that’s not a problem,” he said. “We’ve got all the refrigeration and package we need to freeze everything solid, and we have an aluminum floor, which is the most efficient floor that we can have.
“As people know, we have put this truck in the floor out in California, so being here [in Foxborough] and it being 62 on Christmas Day is not that big of a challenge for us right now.”
In addition to the main event on New Year’s Day, Renzulli said Gillette will also play host to a family skate for the Bruins and a media skate on Dec. 30, followed by two practices, a women’s game and the alumni game on the 31st. After that will come rehearsals, and finally, in the hours leading up to the Winter Classic on the 1st, there will be live music, video boards, hockey-themed attractions and photo opps.
This is not the same rodeo we saw five years ago at Fenway Park. For one thing, Gillette is bigger — a lot bigger. It can host more fans, and the structure of the stadium should provide a better viewing experience for all those in attendance.
But the fans in attendance are not the only people who concern Craig and his crew.
“That’s one of the things that I make sure that our crew is very much aware of — that this is for the hockey world,” Craig said. “This isn’t just for 70-plus thousand people that are sitting here. This is for millions of people.”
There is plenty of work to do between now and the couple of days after Christmas, when the rink will be completed. And when it is finished — when the stage is fully set for yet another Winter Classic — all of the work and all of the manpower will be worth it.
“To be outdoors and be in the fresh air, when you get in the middle of the rink and you look around, it’s pretty spectacular,” Craig said. “It really, really is.”