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Winter Classic rink build begins at Gillette Stadium

by Shawn Roarke

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.-- Dan Craig, the man responsible for building the ice rink at Gillette Stadium that will host the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, has a vision of what the weather will be like when puck drop approaches on Jan. 1.

It was eerily similar to the weather blanketing the area Monday afternoon as the rink build for the began for the highly-anticipated game between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS) at the home of the NFL's New England Patriots.

"Absolutely perfect," he said, gesturing toward the sky as he walked through the tunnel onto the field to consult with the crew putting down a flooring base resting between the two 15-yard lines and will serve as a base for the rink to come in the next 72 hours.

Monday afternoon, the temperature hovered in the mid-40s and the sun was obscured by a low cloud cover. Strong winds throughout the morning tapered down in the afternoon.

The weather for Jan. 1 likely will not be as warm as Monday, but the long-range forecasts look amenable to creating the best possible ice surface. The forecast calls for temperatures in the low 40s and a light wind with significant cloud cover and a chance of rain.

Although the forecast could, and likely will, change as Jan. 1 approaches, Craig does not see anything to give him pause. His hand-picked crew of eight ice technicians has seen just about everything Mother Nature has to offer since the first NHL-affiliated outdoor game in 2003 in Edmonton.

Craig, the NHL's Senior Director of Facilities Operations/Hockey Operations, has supervised rink builds through all kinds of weather. At the Heritage Classic in 2003, he labored through a historic cold snap. In 2008, for the first Winter Classic, he inherited Ralph Wilson Stadium after a Buffalo Bills game and had to stop work almost immediately because gale-force winds made the conditions impossible. Rain has hampered other rink builds, as has, believe it or not, too much sun. Direct sunlight is, perhaps, the worse enemy to an ice surface.

His first trip to New England to build outdoor ice, for the 2010 NHL Winter Classic at Fenway Park featuring the Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, presented a myriad of weather issues and work was slowed down several times.

"Last time we were here, it was bitterly cold and we had a lot of snow," Craig said.

So, the above-average temperatures, which greeted the workers Monday, were warmly received by the crew, Craig said.

"Right now, the [guys] are smiling because their 10-hour shift will be a 10-hour shift; not another four hours shoveling."

Construction will start to move faster once the labor-intensive base is finished Monday night, Craig says. The ice-tray pans will be placed on the base and the piping will be run from the refrigeration truck to the rink on Monday night.

By Tuesday afternoon, all the pans should be in place and the boards will be put in place. At that point, it will look like an ice rink and the ice-making process can begin.

Craig and his crew will remain on site during the Christmas break. They will constantly spray the surface throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to build a 1-inch base by Dec. 26, when the ice will be painted white. Two days later, the rink markings and logos should be down, followed by the building of another half-inch of ice.

According to Craig, the ice should be ready for use on Dec. 29. As has become custom, he and his crew will be the first ones to be on the ice, testing it out before it serves as the host for several Winter Classic-related events, including an alumni game, a women's game, team practices and sponsorship skates.

Despite the modest progress made Monday, Craig can already envision what Gillette Stadium will look like by the time his crew is ready to give the ice surface a test ride.

"It's an accomplishment," Craig said. "It's a lot of hard work. But for me, it's not only being with the guys, but it's knowing that for this community, for this team, for all of the hockey world -- this is why we do it, and for my guys to be able to jump out there and have the smile, that's great. But when you see everybody else go out there and enjoy it, that's what it's all about."

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