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Craig proves again he is master of the ice

by Dan Rosen

Ralph Wilson Stadium
Dan Craig is the NHL’s version of “Mr. Wizard,” but the League’s leading ice scientist got a good laugh when asked if he was the kid who blew off his own eyebrows playing with his chemistry set in his parent’s basement.

“No, definitely not,” Craig told “If you ask any of my high school friends, they’ll just laugh. I wasn’t good at chemistry, not good at all. Talk to my high school chemistry teacher. He would look at you like, ‘No, he’s not the guy.’ ”

On the contrary, this week in Buffalo Dan Craig is the NHL’s No. 1 guy, and his task has everything to do with chemistry.

While Sidney Crosby doesn’t have to play a flawless game for the Pittsburgh Penguins to win and Ryan Miller doesn’t have to stop every puck for the Buffalo Sabres to get two points, Craig has to do his job perfectly so the two superstars can dazzle the world when their teams play in the NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.

Craig, now 52 years old, is the NHL’s facilities operation manager – a title that basically means he oversees every inch of every playing surface in the entire National Hockey League – and he’s in charge of creating the most important element for the Winter Classic:

The ice surface at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Yes, he’s under intense pressure, and he feels it. He admits to losing a few hours of sleep each night, but Craig was handed this task because he sports a resume that could sparkle under any type of weather Mother Nature tosses his way this week.

In 2001, he was the mastermind behind the ice that Michigan and Michigan State skated on at Spartan Stadium in the Cold War.

“The day of the game, the playing surface I remember as being some of the best ice I’ve had a chance to play on,” said Penguins right wing Adam Hall, who played in the Cold War with Michigan State. “You never know with something like that. We were all curious what the ice would be like. I remember it being fast and holding up well.”

Two years later, Craig’s ice at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton for the Heritage Classic withstood near-arctic temperatures so the NHL could put on its memorable show, complete with a MegaStars Game featuring 42 players boasting a combined 118 Stanley Cup championships and a regular-season contest between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens.

“I don’t have a negative thing to say about the whole event,” Sheldon Souray, then a member of the Montreal Canadiens, said following the Heritage Classic.

Craig also once created a rink on top of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Needless to say, he has this rink-building thing down to -- pardon the pun -- a science. And you don't need to remind him how much his ice matters to the event.

"You're going to have 70,000 people there, and seven million watching on the tube," Craig said. "You know CBC and NBC have corporate partners they have to keep pleased. I'm very conscious of that."

Craig played hockey while growing up in Jasper, Alberta, but he never was good enough to make it big on the ice. So, he decided to create it instead.

He broke into the ice business as a senior in high school when he worked at the rink next door to his high school. The arena manager quit, so Craig and a friend took over and ran the rink for the rest of the year without an operations manager overseeing them.

A profession was born.

"Even in Jasper we had a lot of good players, a couple that made it to the NHL," Craig said. "I was not at their level, but I appreciated their talents, and my biggest thing was, I knew I could give them the best surface possible to play their games.

"I just made sure if any player steps on the ice it was going to be the best it could be."

Craig continued to hone his craft in Bonnyville, Alberta, before being hired in 1984 by the Edmonton Oilers as their facilities supervisor, putting him in charge of the ice crew at Northlands Coliseum. He was 29 years old.

Northlands Coliseum, which housed some of the greatest names in this game, such as Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey, immediately earned a League-wide reputation for having the best ice.

"It is amazing science, and the unfortunate part is, it's taking so long for people to understand you don't just throw the keys to the Zamboni to a 16-year-old and say, 'Here, drive,' " Craig said. "The thing that frustrates me is when I watch a junior club and see talented kids not able to play the game the way they know how to play it. From Day 1, when Brian Burke hired me at the NHL (in 1997), our goal was to allow the skill players in the League to play the game. For them to do that we have to have the ice surface to be the best it can be throughout the entire game or else you won't be able to see the skill. And our players do incredible things -- absolutely incredible."

Due to his profession, Craig sees the game from a unique perspective.

"I watch their feet, because that's where my work is," he said. "When I see them doing these incredible things, that's when I say, 'Wow, now I know why I'm doing what I am doing.' It's for moments like that."

Just don't expect him to be watching with the closest eye come 1 p.m. on New Year's Day. Craig's ice already will be created, but he'll be crazy-busy in the hours and minutes leading up to the Winter Classic.

"Everybody knows the morning of a game I'm super-intense, on everybody and checking details," Craig said. "I enjoy it after the game. Once the tape comes out and I'm at home, I sit there and enjoy it."

During the game, he has to make sure everything is running smoothly, from the two 400-ton refrigeration units that already are stationed roughly 500 feet away from the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium, to something as simple as the Zamboni drivers.

If there are any hiccups, Craig will not hesitate to keep the teams off the ice.

He remembers delaying the start of the Heritage Classic for 15 minutes so the Zamboni driver could do a second ice cut to make the playing surface as strong as possible.

"They all thought it was for broken glass, and it was being reported it was for broken glass, but it wasn't for broken glass at all," Craig recalled. "If I have to delay for a half-hour, I'll delay for a half-hour and people will be aware of that."

While game day will be hectic, Craig's craziest time actually is right now.

"I have a hotel room to sleep in, but it's the fear factor that keeps you (at the stadium)," Craig said. "Once we get past Day 3, hopefully I'll have a comfort level to be able to go for a cup of coffee and get away for a little while."

Craig, though, noted the squeeze officially is on.

He had 14 days to prepare for the Heritage Classic, but the Buffalo Bills' game against the New York Giants this past weekend meant he only has seven to get ready before the Sabres and Penguins are scheduled to practice at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Dec. 31.

That means this is a round-the-clock operation, with 12 to 20 workers taking turns in 12-hour shifts. Craig will have the facilities managers from the HSBC Arena on site, but not until after the Sabres play at home game against Ottawa on Wednesday.

"From the 27th to the end of the game we'll have logged over 400 man-hours," Craig said. "We'll have well over 1,000 man-hours by the time it's all said and done."

Buffalo's unpredictable weather -- be it snow, sleet, rain, or wind -- can't stop Craig and his staff, not if the Winter Classic is to go off without a hitch.

"You work through what you need to work through," Craig said. "If it's snowing, you put on your hat and gloves and you just keep on going. At the end of the day what is asked of us is to make things work."

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