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Not even Christmas changes rink-build schedule

by Dan Rosen /
With only a little leeway built in for possible inclement weather and absolutely no room for error, Dan Craig's schedule from the night of Dec. 23 until his deadline of noon Dec. 30 is tightly packed and not for the faint of heart.

So what, says Craig, the League's Facilities Operations Manager, who once again is in charge of the rink being built inside Heinz Field for the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day in Pittsburgh.

"You make the schedule as tight as you possibly can and hopefully you have enough wiggle room that if Mother Nature decides to blast at you, you can work your way around it," Craig told "There are times where you may look and say, 'You're not working on the ice,' but we'd probably just be working to get back to the ice to get back to work."

Craig has been there and done that so many times in his professional life that having nearly 6 1/2 days to create an NHL game-ready sheet of ice on top of a football field using his state-of-the-art equipment and first-class team of a dozen men is a breeze.

Setting the schedule in advance and making sure everyone is prepared for the worst is not so easy, which is why Craig has spent months meticulously going over every little piece of minutia to make sure he's ready for anything the moment the NHL takes over Heinz Field from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The NHL can't start working in the stadium until roughly an hour after the Steelers' game against the Carolina Panthers on the night of Dec. 23. Craig can't get his refrigeration truck, which is driving from Toronto, parked in its location outside of Heinz Field until 9 a.m. the following morning.

And his working orders are to have his rink ready by noon Dec. 30. So time is of the essence.

"We're really tied to the Steelers game," Craig said.

As soon as they're given clearance, they'll get to work. The first tasks will be done mostly by BaAM Productions, a company the NHL contracts to work on projects at various League-run events. They will build roadways for their vehicles and the Zambonis and also build the 15-inch high stage the rink will sit on.

Craig said they're building the stage in order to compensate for the crown on the field, and construction could take up to 16 hours.

"We did it way back when we did the Michigan-Michigan State game (in 2001)," Craig said. "It's not necessarily noticeable, but it's necessary because of the crown on the field."

He stressed patience will be of the utmost importance in building the stage. If it's not perfectly level the ice will not be, either, and they'll have to do it all over again, starting from scratch.

"We know we're under a tight window, but if we don't do that base properly then we're just hurting ourselves," Craig said. "We have to make sure they have the proper time to make sure it's leveled and then we bring in our panels."

The panels are laid down over the stage in a maze-like fashion and they give off the coolant necessary to freeze the water. But they won't turn on the first hose until Christmas night, Craig said, because building the stage, laying down the panels, connecting them all and making sure all the pumps are firing takes time, and one false move could ruin the project.

Christmas, at least for those on Craig's crew who celebrate the holiday, is just another day of work.

"That's the way it is. There is not a thing that we can do differently," Craig said. "There is no special dinner. There is no special anything. There will be a special dinner once we get everything done maybe on the 29th or the 30th, but we can't break for 2 1/2 hours for everybody to sit around, drink eggnog and have turkey. There's no time."

The hoses will be on throughout the night of the 25th and all day on the 26th. Craig hopes to be painting his black ice white on the 27th.

"Or, at the very latest it has to be done on the 28th because I have to build an inch of ice over top of that and I have to get it ready for noon on the 30th," Craig said. "To build an inch of ice over the top of the white paint will take all the 29th. All of the 26th is to build an inch of ice. Then, you paint your white, put in your line markings and logos, build over top of it and away you go."

To make it all work, Craig is dividing his team of 12, himself included, into two six-man groups that will work in 12-hour shifts, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. He wants to keep the same teams working the same shifts so sleep patterns don't get screwy.
"You make the schedule as tight as you possibly can and hopefully you have enough wiggle room that if Mother Nature decides to blast at you, you can work your way around it."         -- Dan Craig
Craig, of course, likely will be putting in plenty of overtime. There's no doubt his shifts will bleed together.

"We're keeping our meals on that schedule so guys can have breakfast when they arrive or breakfast before they go to bed," Craig said.
The crew is not a concern. Craig has total trust in every one of the guys. If he didn't, they wouldn't be working on the project with him. And the fact that 11 of the 12 have worked with the same equipment on past Winter Classic rink-builds puts Craig at an even greater ease.

The stress, he said, all comes from the fear of the unknown.

"Whether it's Mother Nature, equipment failure, whatever it is -- that's where the stress is," he said. "On the last two that we've done we've had trouble on our travel days just getting guys from the crew into the city. We've had blizzards here and there in different parts of the country, planes being re-routed, guys losing bags. It's those types of things."

Craig said he's making sure every member of his crew is ticketed to arrive in Pittsburgh on Dec. 22, so if there is a hiccup they'll at least still make it on time for the night of the 23rd. They'll gather at the hotel for a meeting in the afternoon on the 23rd and head to the stadium together.

Every member of Craig's crew is ticketed to go home Jan. 4, but in between the work will be tough, the days probably not long enough, and who knows what kind of weather they're going to be up against.

Bring it on.

"Mother Nature is going to dictate to us what we do and we can't afford to lose even two hours," Craig said. "All the guys are very much aware of it. They've all signed on for it and that's the way it is."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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