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NHL sweats the details for Winter Classic success

by Phil Coffey

NHL facilities manager Dan Craig is one of the men who have made the upcoming AMP NHL Winter Classic game a reality.
The devil is said to be in the details, and this has nothing to do with your New Jersey variety of Devils.

Think about it for a minute. The decision is made to hold an outdoor game on Jan. 1, 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo. Now make it happen.


But Don Renzulli, the NHL’s Senior Vice President of Events and Entertainment, and Dan Craig, the League’s Facilities Operations Manager, not only bought into the concept, they have made it happen.

Need proof? Just click on the time-lapse photography and video on that shows the transformation of Ralph Wilson Stadium from football stadium to hockey arena. It’s pretty cool … so to speak.

“We probably got involved with this in June,” Renzulli said. “We did some site studies and we actually went up and built the mock rink in the stadium – instead of looking at pieces of paper with lines drawn on them – we wanted to see really what the fans would see and we did that in August. We came back in early September and had our press conference to launch it. Going forward, as this thing can grow, it’s going to take a lot more time and pre-planning as, hopefully, it is successful and we can move it around to other venues in the country.”

As you might imagine, going from concept to reality with such a venture can be a daunting task.

“Just trying to understand all the different elements you have pre-built in an arena and trying to fit those into a football stadium,” Renzulli said. “I think when you look at it from a broadcast standpoint, you’re talking about camera positions and sightlines. Also, you have the locker rooms, the infrastructure that you need for the refrigeration system. All those types of pieces aren’t pre-built. You have to try to layer those into a stadium that’s not typically set up for something like this.”

Reality reared its ugly head Dec. 23, when work on the stadium began shortly after the NFL game between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills. Anyone who saw the weather that day couldn’t envy the workers in their task in the wind and freezing rain.

“It made for a few challenges the first night, but we worked our way around it,” said Craig, always the master of understatement. “We got our guys some extra rest on that first day, but pushed very hard the last 48 hours.”

“We tarped field and removed the goalposts and spent the next few hours just doing a site survey, getting our points that we start to level the field with since there’s a nine-inch crown in that football field,” Renzulli said. “We started with that and slowly started leveling that field off with about 3,000 sheets of plywood and Styrofoam. Then we started the rink and the ice process.”

“The Buffalo Bills have been instrumental in guiding us through this,” Renzulli added. “The Sabres’ staff, being there locally, has been a great help in trying to help us understand how we need to prepare a football stadium for hockey. The ice rink people we’re bringing in, including Dan Craig, the ‘ice guru,’ has made a number of trips up. There has been a boatload of people involved in the process of trying to download all the information from them. We’ve talked to people from Edmonton. We have people coming in from California and Minnesota and various parts of the country.”

Thus, little has been left to chance. But then again, the devil is in the details.

Two more years of Lidstrom -- The Detroit Red Wings and their fans are a happy bunch these days. Not only is the team playing great hockey, but the news that uber-defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom had signed on for two more seasons was a real Christmas present.

Actually, it was a pretty nice gift for hockey fans everywhere since Lidstrom is one of those players who is a joy to watch.

“Nick has been the best defenseman in the world for several years,” Red Wings GM Ken Holland said in a statement. “He’s a great captain and role model who does everything right both on and off the ice. We’re proud to have him continue as a Red Wing for another two years.”

“I take a lot of pride in being captain of one of the Original Six teams,” Lidstrom said. “There’s so much tradition here.”

And a lot of winning, too, which Lidstrom has contributed to in spades. Here are just some of his accomplishments.

* Has played more games (1,214 after Thursday’s game against Colorado) in the first 15-plus years of his career than any other player in the history of the NHL. He has missed just 22 games in that span.

* Since entering the League in 1991-92, he has the highest plus/minus rating in the NHL, with a plus-361.

* Is the highest scoring defenseman in Red Wings history and currently ranks second all-time among Swedish-born players in scoring, with 902 points, ahead of Peter Forsberg (871).

Red Wings' defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom will remain in Detroit for the next two seasons.

Won the Norris Trophy in five of the last six seasons played (2001, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007). Only Bobby Orr (eight) and Doug Harvey (seven) have won more Norris Trophies.

* Joined Orr, Harvey and Pierre Pilote as the only players in NHL history to win three straight Norris Trophies.

Yep, pretty impressive stuff.

“It’s a great move by the organization, not to even let this go any further,” teammate Kris Draper told the Detroit Free Press. “To be able to get a guy like Nick Lidstrom sealed up for two more years, it basically puts him in a situation to retire a Red Wing. I think that’s great. As a player that’s been able to play with Nick, you don’t even want to think about this hockey team without Nick Lidstrom. Now we don’t have to. That’s reassuring for everybody in this dressing room.”

But is this the final contract of a Hall of Fame career?

“I don’t know,” Lidstrom said. “All I know is I gotta play for another couple years and that’s my focus right now. I’ll reassess everything when a two-year deal is up. We’ll see. But I’m very happy and pleased with the two-year deal that I got.”

SRO in St. Louis -- Hey buddy, shove over, will ya!”

That’s the case in St. Louis these days, where the Blues announced on Wednesday they were selling standing-room only tickets for the first time at Scottrade Center. The club sold 100 tickets to standees.

“It’s fantastic,” Blues President John Davidson said. “I was just down in the office ... (GM) Larry (Pleau) and I were sitting there just thinking where we were a year ago. There were a lot of seats available for most nights. People believe in us again. It’s very gratifying.”

Serene Ducks -- Ducks present stark contrasts. They look so peaceful and graceful on the surface, but are paddling like mad under the water. To a certain extent, this applies to your hockey-playing Ducks of Anaheim, too.

Since Scott Niedermayer’s return and the subsequent trade of Andy McDonald to open the needed salary cap room, the Ducks seem to be a team at peace.

“For whatever reason we feel like our whole work ethic, our whole mindset has really gone up,” coach Randy Carlyle said. “It’s seemed to coincide with the settling of our team, too.”

There was understandable tension as everyone wondered what Niedermayer’s decision would be regarding retirement or returning, and then the cap fallout. But the team is settled now.

“Our practices are a lot more spirited, we’re playing with a lot more jump and confidence,” captain Chris Pronger said. “Having fewer distractions in the room helps.”

This ain’t so tough! -- Don’t feel sorry for Detroit’s Tomas Holmstrom when you see him taking abuse in front of the opposition’s net; for him, it’s a welcomed diversion.

"I wake up to a freak show," said Holmstrom, who has three kids under the age of 7. "They're all running around, screaming and fighting. It's an interesting way to get ready for a game."

Material from personal interviews, wire services, newspaper, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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