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NHL Winter Classic

Winter Classic ice crew unsung heroes of NHL outdoor event

Bond over hard work during holidays ahead of Stars-Predators at Cotton Bowl

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars will play the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Cotton Bowl Stadium on Jan. 1 (2 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS). In the runup to the game, and NHL Studios present "Making of The Winter Classic," a daily behind-the-scenes look at how the annual outdoor event comes together. Today, we focus on the crew that builds the ice. 

DALLAS -- 'Twas the night before Christmas. While their families were home nestled all snug in their beds, three members of the NHL ice crew worked until 6 a.m. inside Cotton Bowl Stadium. The only sounds were the spray of water, the gurgle of glycol and the hum of lights, though they could have sworn they heard the jingle of Santa's sleigh bells.

"We thought we saw him go by, actually," crewman Jeff Fletcher said with a smile.

That is only part of what the ice crew will have done before the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators on New Year's Day (2 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS). Rain and temperatures as high as 69 degrees Fahrenheit caused a setback Saturday.


[RELATED: 2020 NHL Winter Classic coverage]


Come game day, when the forecast calls for clouds and 54 degrees Fahrenheit, the ice will be a product of countless hours of work behind the scenes, an honor and a labor of love for 14 crewmen with deep expertise and varied experience. Most have been here since Dec. 16 with a brief break for Christmas. Five stayed through the holiday, three on Santa's schedule.

Some work for NHL teams, including Stars ice operations manager Cody Bateman, who is at his sixth NHL outdoor game, and Predators ice ops manager Nigel Schnarr, who is at his first.

"I think the biggest part about it is the camaraderie you get being an icemaker at this level," Bateman said. "You get around a bunch of guys that are really smart and really experienced, and it's kind of nice, because it makes everything really easy. I mean, everybody here's got different talents, different skills to bring to the table. You learn a lot from each other."

Cody Bateman, member of the ice crew


Others work outside the NHL, including Fletcher, who is at his 21st outdoor game. He is the facility supervisor for the City of West Kelowna, British Columbia, and has a wife and two kids, ages 18 and 21. But he took vacation time and spent Christmas away from his family to be here.

"The game is the end product, but the guys are the reason I come back every year, because they're a second family," Fletcher said. "We get together and have a great time for three weeks, and it's for the love of the game and the love of each other."

* * * * *

The NHL has held outdoor games in all kinds of cities, stadiums and conditions over the years, from Los Angeles to Ottawa, on baseball and football fields, from 0 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, through sun and snow, in wind and rain, in daylight and at night.

"We've seen it all, I think," Fletcher said. "Some places, we've seen it all in the same day."

The goal is always the same.

"You want it to be as close as possible to an indoor sheet," said NHL senior manager of facility operations Derek King, the leader of the crew. "We know we can't control air temp, humidity. But what we can control, we pay really close attention to."

Derek King, member of the ice crew


The crew members like to say they are always "one year smarter," because at each event, they learn from it and improve the process.

First, they put stage decking on top of the turf to protect it. Then comes a layer of plywood. On top of that go 243 interlocking aluminum pans with built-in hoses that circulate glycol, a green liquid like antifreeze.

The aluminum transfers heat to the glycol, which carries it out of the stadium to the Mobile Refrigeration Unit, a semi trailer with the same ice-making equipment as in an NHL arena. Compressors pull the heat from the glycol using ammonia, a condenser ejects the heat into the air, and the glycol is pumped back into the stadium.

The glycol is the lifeblood. The Mobile Refrigeration Unit?

"It's the heart," said Dennis Dick, the onsite refrigeration technician responsible for it, who lives in Winnipeg and is at his 10th outdoor game. "If that goes down, there's no game."

Dennis Dick by the ice plant at the Cotton Bowl


The crewmen can't simply turn on a hose and flood the surface. Air could become trapped in the ice, and they need a dense, hard sheet.

So they fill gaps with slush. They walk slowly up and down the length of the rink spraying a fine mist of water. They wait for it to freeze and do it over and over again, one microscopic layer at a time. In high-traffic areas, they also lay fabric, which strengthens the ice like rebar strengthens concrete.

After they reach about 1 1/4 inches, they paint the surface white and seal it with another quarter-inch of ice. They did it from 9 p.m. Christmas Eve until 6 a.m. Christmas Day here, because it's best to build ice overnight when it's dark and cold and they wanted to work ahead with rain in the forecast for later in the week.

The crewmen can't simply paint the lines and logos either. Dark colors absorb heat from the sun, even in freezing temperatures. That can melt the ice, and that can make the paint bleed.

So they lay lines and logos made of fabric, then seal them with another 3/4 of an inch to 1 inch of ice. They laid the lines and logos from about 9 p.m. Thursday to 12 a.m. Friday, then kept building ice until about 4 a.m. Friday. They kept building ice Friday night into the wee hours of Saturday morning too, only to watch the warm rain fall Saturday afternoon.

The ice in a typical NHL arena is about 1 inch to 1 ½ inches thick. At least before the rain Saturday, the plan was for the ice here to be about 2 ½ inches thick, allowing the crew to scrape instead of flood if necessary. Each inch of ice equals about 10,000 gallons of water.

Video: King, Pansegrau detail making 2020 Winter Classic ice

The ideal temperature for the surface is 23-25 degrees Fahrenheit. Insulated blankets protect the ice from the elements, and a system of sensors called "Eye on the Ice" monitors the temperatures at different spots and depths. The crew can pull up the data on computers and phones, and set alarms.

"In the event of a major breakdown in a climate like this, you don't have much time, right?" Dick said. "So you're constantly keeping an eye on everything, so if you notice something, you can nip it in the bud fairly quick."

King trusts his crew, and his crewmen trust each other.

"I don't want to get too sentimental, but everyone's got everyone's back," King said. "It's a close group. It's a job, but like, it's not a job, because you love what you do. Otherwise, you wouldn't be doing it."

* * * * *

The crewmen who stayed for Christmas saw their families via FaceTime and celebrated with each other by going out to dinner. The crew planned to do a Secret Santa gift exchange when everyone got back together.

They will celebrate New Year's Day by stressing over the ice while the second-largest crowd in NHL history watches the Stars play the Predators in an iconic football stadium, and Cotton Bowl Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Ricky Williams drop the puck, and Nashville duo Dan + Shay and Texas trio Midland perform, and clowns and cowboys recreate the State Fair of Texas, and hopefully everyone else forgets about the foundation of the whole thing.

"It's always cool to walk in the first day and see the venue, whether it's a baseball diamond or a football stadium, how it looks, and then transform it into an arena," said Dick. "And then for me, the rush is when you see 80,000 people in there and everyone's into it.

"It's just that rush. It makes it all worth it, being away from home for several weeks and missing the holidays and all that away from friends and family.

"It makes it all worth it."

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