AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Temperatures were in the high teens at Falcon Stadium on Monday, combined with freezing rain and wind, with a snowstorm projected by evening -- not exactly ideal conditions for constructing an NHL-caliber ice rink on a football field.
But Mike Craig, the NHL's Senior Manager of Facilities Operations/Hockey Operations, expressed confidence that he and his 200-person crew will have everything ready by Feb. 15 for the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union Stadium Series game between the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings.
"As you can tell, we've definitely have some weather coming in, a snow event coming in," Craig said while standing in front of the 53-foot refrigeration trailer, the world's largest mobile refrigeration unit, that arrived Monday at the U.S. Air Force Academy campus, just north of Colorado Springs and about 60 miles south of Denver. "I know we'll have [these conditions] for the next 24-48 hours, so we'll come up with a plan on how to deal with that and make sure that our production schedule stays on time."
The trailer houses state-of-the-art ice-making and ice-monitoring equipment used to create and monitor NHL-caliber sheets of ice outdoors.
Craig and his crew have been building rinks under various conditions for outdoor NHL games since the first one in the regular season, the 2003 Heritage Classic at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium. The temperature dipped to zero degrees Fahrenheit when the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3.
"We've dealt with a lot of different weather over the years at all different events," Craig said. "We've had snow, we've had rain, we've had sun, we've had a lot of different things. As you go through all that you learn how to deal with it."
The game-time temperature was 65 degrees Fahrenheit for the 2016 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Denver's Coors Field on Feb. 27 when the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Avalanche 5-3.
Altitude at Falcon Stadium, nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is listed as 6,621 feet above sea level, the kind of challenge the ice crew dealt with in Denver, which is a mile high at 5,280 feet.
"We learned a lot from that, actually, so I think we're well prepared to deal with it," Craig said. "In talking to some people who work here at the Air Force Academy and [learning about] some of the local weather, we've done our homework with that and we'll be ready."
Craig's crew was in the process Monday of putting flooring atop the Falcon Stadium field, where the Air Force football and lacrosse teams play. The refrigeration truck will be hooked up next to remove heat from the surface and stabilize the temperature by pumping as much as 3,000 gallons of glycol coolant into custom-made aluminum trays that are configured on the field.
Assuming everything goes well, Craig said, the dasher boards will be installed Friday. After making sure the refrigeration system is operating correctly, "by that evening we should be making ice," Craig said.
It takes 20,000 gallons of water to make 2-inch thick ice, three-quarters of an inch thicker than the ice in NHL arenas.
"A little bit more insulation to give us a little bit more room to do a few things as we control temperatures," Craig said. "We really strive to have conditions out here that are just the same as NHL games, so there's a lot of fine-tuning. Obviously, we don't control Mother Nature, so we have to do a lot of different things to try to kind of combat that."
The rink is expected to be ready for team practices on Feb. 14.
"It's the prettiest feeling," Craig said. "There's a lot of people involved and a lot of effort, a lot of time and energy put into making these happen. Definitely once it's all over it's a good feeling."