WASHINGTON -- No matter how many outdoor rinks Dan Craig builds in venues larger than any NHL arena, and he has built quite a lot of them in the past seven years, he still feels the same level of nervous excitement as the days tick off the calendar, drawing event-day closer.
"It's nerves for accomplishment is what it is," Craig, the NHL's senior director of facilities operations, told NHL.com on Monday. "It's a game, and that's one of the things I never lose sight of, and within Hockey Operations, within our world, we never lose sight of it. This is a regular-season game and I want the guys to be able to play this as any regular-season game."
Except, and nobody has to tell this to Craig, it's not any regular-season game: It's the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic outside at Nationals Park on New Year's Day (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
On Thursday, Craig's rink will be the centerpiece of the NHL's signature regular-season event, just as it was in Buffalo in 2008, in Chicago in 2009, in Boston in 2010, in Pittsburgh in 2011, in Philadelphia in 2012, and in Ann Arbor, Mich. in 2014.
Craig knows the pressure is on him to again pull this off, but he spoke Monday with a level of calmness that suggests what he was saying is all true; that everything is on schedule, and all that's left on his to-do list is whatever Mother Nature decides to throw at him and his veteran ice crew in the coming days.
His easy approach likely has to do with the fact he and his crew haven't been thrown too many weather-related curveballs this year. They've built rinks in blizzards, driving rain, frigid cold, and unseasonably warm conditions.
The weather in Washington has been fairly steady of late, save for heavy rain that dumped on the region Christmas Eve and Christmas, forcing Craig, three members of his crew, and the engineer who runs the refrigeration truck to stay in town over the holiday to monitor the situation.
"We had to run the truck pretty hard to deal with the rain," Craig said.
They did it without a hiccup. By Sunday night all the lines and logos were installed, and there was just enough added rain overnight Sunday into Monday that could be frozen onto the surface in order to seal all the paint and logos.
Craig and others were the first to skate on the ice at noon Monday.
"Our guys are looking at one another now and saying, 'We're ready, right now. Drop the puck, let's play right now,'" Craig said. "I usually say that about this time, but I like it because it gives you a more controlled feeling. It's a comfort level and it allows you to get settled down a bit, get the nerves in order. Everybody is prepared to jump on board and do what needs to get done."
What that is remains to be seen. The weather dictates everything now that the rink is finished.
The forecast is somewhat promising, but alarming too.
The temperature is supposed to remain in the low-to-mid 40s, above Craig's ideal 28 degrees but absolutely manageable. However, sun, the greatest equalizer when building an outdoor rink, is what Craig and his crew are expected to be up against starting Tuesday.
The media is scheduled to skate on the rink Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET. The Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks have their practice sessions and family skates on Wednesday. The game is Thursday. It's supposed to be partly to mostly sunny each day.
Craig and his crew will have to shield the rink from the sun by laying down insulated tarps when nobody is on the ice.
"We have the tarps to protect our lines and logos, and it's like we always say, we wake up in the morning and whatever Mother Nature throws at us, that's what we're prepared to deal with," Craig said. "You don't know if you have things left to do. The checklist is prepared for tomorrow as a lead up to practice day, but you only have a couple rehearsals because come Thursday there is no more rehearsing.
"It's be prepared. Preparation is the biggest thing right now."
Preparation is one thing Craig doesn't have to worry about. He handpicked his ice crew because he has worked with every member on it before and trusts them. Many are the same people who have been working with Craig on NHL outdoor games since 2009.
"I have guys on this [ice] crew now that have been here for six or seven years. and they're very much aware that they can get a text message at 6 o'clock in the morning that says, 'Get on the bus and get over here,'" Craig said.
It's all to ensure what Craig and the NHL demand, that come Thursday the Capitals and Blackhawks are able to play a regular-season game that looks like any other regular-season game, save for the fact they're playing it outdoors, in a baseball stadium, in front of more than 41,000 people and millions watching at home.
"These two teams are coming along, coming really hard right now," Craig said. "The Blackhawks have an awesome record. The Caps are coming right behind and are going to scare a lot of people. It's going to be a battle, and that's what you want. You want it to be a battle out there and you want the entertainment, so on my side I want to be sure that my crew puts their best step forward just like the players do. This is why they're here. This is why they were selected."
And this is why these outdoor games never get old to Craig.