-- Mother Nature is doing her best to keep NHL Facilities Operations Manager Dan Craig and his ice crew on top of their game in the hours before the puck drops in the historic Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 at Wrigley Field.
It's not snow, sleet or rain this time. It's the frigid temperature here that is the challenge. A bitter cold snap overnight and temperatures in the low teens during the day Wednesday wreaked havoc with ice making.
"It's a tough challenge for the crew, but the crew is doing an awesome job," Craig told NHL.com in an exclusive interview Wednesday evening. "They are hanging in there. It just seems that every couple of hours we get a new curveball thrown in there and we're trying to catch up to it and that's what we do here."
Craig said his crew plans to work in shifts round-the-clock Wednesday into Thursday to make sure the ice is as perfect as possible (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM) for the game between the Chicago Blackhawks
and Detroit Red Wings
The crew learned the hard way Tuesday night that round-the-clock vigilance is a necessity.
The crew left Wrigley Field by 11 p.m., but overnight the on-field temperature dipped into single digits. As a result, the base of the ice began to contract, causing visible stress fractures to form.
Returning at 6 a.m. Wednesday, Craig and his crew were greeted by a brittle ice surface. Worse yet, they couldn't use their hoses to get hot water on the ice sheet to mend it for two hours because the cold temperatures had frozen the water.
The ideal temperature for the ice is anywhere between 22 and 24 degrees, but the surface temperature dipped as low as 12 degrees overnight. Since there is no way to bring the base temperature up, the only thing the crew can do is flood the top of the ice with hot water from hoses.
"The harder it gets, the tougher it is for the (Zambonis) to get out there because of the weight of the machines," Craig said.
Once the crew got the hot water working again, they were able to spray the ice and it started to mend. That's why Craig said the Detroit Red Wings
' practice, which started at roughly 1:30 p.m. local time, was perfect.
"Detroit's practice was awesome," Craig said. "If you watched what the guys were doing with their skates and what they were doing with the puck, it was awesome."
Even though it took them the entire morning to get the ice in shape, just in time for the Blackhawks' practice at 11:15 a.m., Craig said he was pleased with the way the ice responded after Chicago skated, too.
"We had worked almost six hours trying to get this thing back in shape just so they could get on the ice," Craig said. "I didn't have to watch the surface to know what was going to happen out there when they went out there. It was a little tough and a little chunky, but it was not as bad as I thought it was going to be. That's why we took the half-hour re-surface in between the Hawks practice and the family skate."
Craig's crew continues to work through many hiccups, but the man in charge says the bottom line remains the same: The ice will be suitable for an NHL game by noon Thursday.
"Yes, not a doubt," he said. "That's what matters, and it's safe. That's my job."
He also doesn't anticipate having to use the Zambonis more than is typically required for a normal game. You may remember that last year's Winter Classic in Buffalo had to be stalled midway through the periods for a Zamboni run.
"We're finding that we can go out with the snow shovels to remove snow," Craig said. "We have four-foot wide snow pushers now and we've got eight of them here so I know for a fact we can do it quicker than what a Zamboni can do to turn it around."
It'll just take a few extra man hours to make it all work.
Nobody said the battle against Mother Nature was going to be easy.
"We'll be keeping a heat load on it (Wednesday night) because there's no other way of doing it," Craig said. "Mother Nature is going to come up and it's probably going to get down to 12-14 degrees again. We'll keep the hoses on it once an hour to keep some heat on the top end so it doesn't get too brittle for us."
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