-- As the chief ice maker for the NHL, Dan Craig takes immense pride that his work is the foundation for outdoor spectacles like the 2011 Tim Hortons Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens
and Calgary Flames
that will be played in Calgary's McMahon Stadium on Feb. 20.
That pride bubbled to the surface Tuesday when Craig, the NHL Facilities Operations Manager, made a stop in his old stomping grounds, where he made ice for the Edmonton Oilers
for 11 seasons and laid down the sheet at Commonwealth Stadium, where the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens
played the NHL's first regular-season outdoor game on Nov. 22, 2003.
With all the pomp, circumstance and fanfare that will surround the NHL's latest outdoor game, getting the ice right is as fundamental as ensuring the pucks are frozen and the nets are 4-by-6.
That's his job.
"For me, I don't care if you're making $9 million a year or you're 9 years old," Craig said. "You're going to get the best of whatever I can do on that particular day."
Eight years ago on a bitterly cold and windy afternoon at Commonwealth Stadium, Craig's work was front and center. Not only for a game between the Oilers and Canadiens, but for an alumni game that featured the likes of Wayne Gretzky
, Mark Messier
and Guy Lafleur
in front of 57,167 fans.
While the shivering masses huddled as NHL history unfolded in a game that would be won 4-3 by the Canadiens, Craig's focus was considerably narrower -- get it right despite trying conditions on a day when the mercury dipped to minus-30 degrees Celsius with the wind chill factored in.
"These are real points on the table," Craig said. "That's exactly what I always think about when we do our games.
"You can't lose focus that is a regular-season game. With how tight the standings are right now, if you miss two points you can be out of the playoffs. At no point in time do I ever want to hear that the surface they are skating on contributed or played a part in impacting the game -- other than it being the best they've ever skated on."
Craig, 55, has been the NHL's lead ice maker for all its outdoor games, and his focus and that of his 10-man crew is on the upcoming game in Calgary. Tuesday, however, was a reminder there's only one first time.
"It's a lot of good memories," he said. "It was probably the first time that I had been able to come back to Edmonton to give back to Edmonton. That's the way I felt.
"This is where I grew up. This is where I applied my trade. I was able to put my crew back together. It was my first time to truly give back to Edmonton. Yes, you feel very proud of it."
The years since Gretzky and Lafleur played outside in Edmonton have provided Craig with improved technology and more know-how when it comes to laying down a sheet of ice outdoors in a football stadium.
In addition, the long-range forecast suggests Craig and his crew won't have such bitter cold to deal with for the 2011 Heritage Classic as they did eight years ago.
Add it up, and Edmonton's former resident ice man expects to provide Calgary with better ice than he did here, even if that doesn't seem quite right to hardcore fans of the Oilers.
"I'm far enough removed from Edmonton," smiles Craig. "It's an NHL event. For me, it's Canadian. That's my focus. I want to make sure Canada knows we are going to do as big a job, if not a bigger job, than at the (2011 Bridgestone NHL) Winter Classic in Pittsburgh.
"We're going to do this one bigger and better than that. That's the way I see it. It's the only way to go. I've got to be better than I was yesterday."