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Rave reviews greet Heritage ice surface after practices

by Dave Lozo /
CALGARY -- After fighting the elements for nearly two weeks, it appears NHL Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig won out in his battle against Mother Nature -- with a little help from some thermal blankets.

The ice for the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic received nothing but positive reviews after the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens had their first practices Saturday at McMahon Stadium.

It was about -17 degrees Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit) when the Canadiens took the ice at 11:30 a.m. local time, but no one had any complaints when they finished practice about an hour later.

Well, a couple players had a bone to pick with the sun, but that's not Craig's department.

"The ice was good," said Canadiens defenseman Alexandre Picard. "The only little issue was the sun, the glare from the ice. If you ask (goaltender) Alex Auld, who was stuck at one end of the ice all of practice, I don't think he saw many pucks coming at him. Other than that, I thought it was great.

P.K. Subban felt the same way about the ice.

"I thought it was fine," Subban said. "I don't want to complain too much about anything. That's not what this event is all about. It's about going out there and playing the game that you love. Other than the sun, I thought everything was great."

The Flames took their turn on the ice at 1:30 p.m. and offered the same positive reviews.

Defenseman Steve Staios was a member of the Oilers when Edmonton hosted the Heritage Classic in 2003 against the Montreal Canadiens. It was -18 degrees Celsius (0 degrees Fahrenheit) for that game and the ice was breaking apart under the players' skates.

But that was far from the case Saturday.

"This is much better. It's a lot better," Staios said. "There are a few areas where it chipped up and in '03 there were a lot of areas like that. We were on it for as long as we were and I know they can do things between TV timeouts to patch it up and also in between periods."

The reason the ice was in such good condition was because of a little shopping spree by Craig's crew Friday.

With forecasts calling for -25 degrees Celsius (-13 degrees Fahrenheit) on Saturday morning, the ice crew went out and purchased about 80 thermal blankets of varying sizes and placed them atop the ice overnight. By placing the heated tarp on top of the ice, it made it softer for the practices of the Canadiens and Flames.

Of all the ways Craig has battled Mother Nature to make his ice playable for the NHL, heating the ice was a rare trick he pulled out of his bag. But his logic made complete sense.

"You as a person, what would you do if you went outside? You'd put on a jacket," Craig said. "Same principle. We covered it up to keep the ice warm -- not cold.

"The crew did an awesome, awesome job. Worked hard, got'er done."

That doesn't mean Craig is done working.

He knows there were some cracks in the ice when the Flames practiced and his crew will be all over the ice surface following the Alumni Game.

"Our first skate was pretty good. Our second skate was probably a little chunky," Craig said. "It's still very cold out there. It tightened up that top surface so it got a little flaky, but other than that, I think we'll be good. We just have a few things to do tonight and we'll be ready to go."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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