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Hang around enough, making ice-history-at Wrigley seems normal

by Stuart Shea
Two weeks to go, and yet so much to be done.

Not Christmas. That's just eight days off! Hanukkah? Four days. Kwanzaa starts December 26.

Just 14 days until the hockey world's eyes fall upon…a 94-year-old baseball stadium that also holds the record for hosting the most NFL contests. Yes, hockey is coming to Wrigley Field. It's only two weeks from the puck drop at the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009, which is Jan. 1 in Chicago (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM Radio).

But you know, the more time one spends around this venerable ballpark during the ice build process, the more normal the idea seems.

Of course, members of the NHL ice crew have been working day and night for months planning the entire process, from deciding what angle to position the rink to how thick to make the ice. After nearly a year of planning, the league has its communications and promotional staffs out in full force. And now that the park itself is open and preparations are being made, the entire notion of hockey in this place is becoming a reality.

Chicagoans are intrigued.

Fascinated passersby peer inside open gates, marveling at the pallets of plywood and aluminum sheeting and snapping cell-phone photos of the dozens of workers laying down flooring and shoveling snow. Neighborhood bars and restaurants—Wrigleyville has plenty of both—are already pushing their special Jan. 1, 2009 Winter Classic Parties. With the Hawks on a roll, and the visiting Red Wings always a popular draw, tickets for the Classic are beyond impossible to get. The Neighborhood of Baseball will become the Outdoor Home of Hockey to start off the New Year.

To keep chilled but hardy NHL ice crew workers in the holiday spirit, Christmas music blared from Wrigley Field's sound system Wednesday afternoon as temperatures hovered around 25 F (-4 C). That may seem cold, and it sure is cooler in the shade, but the weather was positively balmy compared to the arctic conditions of Tuesday.

"The temperature today is awesome," said NHL Facility Operations Manager Dan Craig, who's been nice enough to allow to shadow him during the entire ice build process. "It's almost too warm to wear these heavy jackets," he noted, pointing toward his industrial-strength coat, "but as soon as the sun goes down behind that wall, it'll cool down."

Craig was happy that the snow stopped Wednesday morning, because his crew needs dry conditions to lay down the plywood and aluminum flooring that will support the two-inch-thick game ice. Measurements are calculated to the centimeter, as the rink has to be laid out to the exact specifications necessary to allow stadium lighting and TV cameras to perform effectively. Thursday, the boards are scheduled to go up, and it'll start to look like a hockey rink.

The impression one gets watching this process, even for a few minutes, is just how much work goes into preparing for something seemingly as simple as a hockey game. It's hard enough to lay down a floor and create ice in a rink that hosts 45 or so games a year; doing so in an outdoor environment in blustery Chicago on a baseball field that has a slight incline? You'd better have a darn good crew.

The NHL is glad to have Craig, who has fully earned his unofficial title of "Ice Guru." His crew is businesslike and hard-working, and Craig is quick to credit the league (and the weatherman) with giving him more preparation time for this year's Classic.

"This year is a lot easier than last year," he said. "This year we had lots of time built in. Last year [in Buffalo] when we started setting up, we had a major windstorm, and it was cold and it was nasty compared to this year.

"Guys here aren't so cold that they're worried about taking a break every 15 minutes. They work through to their coffee time, every two hours or so."

Craig also stresses the respect that the league has for Wrigley Field and the Cubs. He's even going to the trouble of laying down plastic sheeting beneath the cooling tubes in case of fluid leakage when the floor is dismantled on Jan. 4.

"We want to make sure that everything is protected. We promised the Cubs that we would protect the field. We totally respect their field and we totally respect their sport…we're coming into their house and we want to be very conscious of what we're doing here."

Making history is what they're doing.

Stuart Shea is covering the ice rink build at Wrigley Field for He is author of "Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography" (Potomac Books) and worked a Major League Baseball contributor at Wrigley Field for a decade.

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