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Craig Proves Again He is Master of the Ice

by Dan Rosen / Pittsburgh Penguins
Ralph Wilson Stadium
Winter Classic Homepage


Dan Craig also once created a rink on top of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Needless to say, he has this rink-building thing down to -- pardon the pun -- a science. And you don't need to remind him how much his ice matters to the event.

"You're going to have 70,000 people there, and seven million watching on the tube," Craig said. "You know CBC and NBC have corporate partners they have to keep pleased. I'm very conscious of that."

Craig played hockey while growing up in Jasper, Alberta, but he never was good enough to make it big on the ice. So, he decided to create it instead.

He broke into the ice business as a senior in high school when he worked at the rink next door to his high school. The arena manager quit, so Craig and a friend took over and ran the rink for the rest of the year without an operations manager overseeing them.

A profession was born.

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"Even in Jasper we had a lot of good players, a couple that made it to the NHL," Craig said. "I was not at their level, but I appreciated their talents, and my biggest thing was, I knew I could give them the best surface possible to play their games.

"I just made sure if any player steps on the ice it was going to be the best it could be."

Craig continued to hone his craft in Bonnyville, Alberta, before being hired in 1984 by the Edmonton Oilers as their facilities supervisor, putting him in charge of the ice crew at Northlands Coliseum. He was 29 years old.

Northlands Coliseum, which housed some of the greatest names in this game, such as Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey, immediately earned a League-wide reputation for having the best ice.

"It is amazing science, and the unfortunate part is, it's taking so long for people to understand you don't just throw the keys to the Zamboni to a 16-year-old and say, 'Here, drive,' " Craig said. "The thing that frustrates me is when I watch a junior club and see talented kids not able to play the game the way they know how to play it. From Day 1, when Brian Burke hired me at the NHL (in 1997), our goal was to allow the skill players in the League to play the game. For them to do that we have to have the ice surface to be the best it can be throughout the entire game or else you won't be able to see the skill. And our players do incredible things -- absolutely incredible."

THE SCHEDULE

Dan Craig, who is overseeing construction of the rink inside Ralph Wilson Stadium for the NHL Winter Classic, gave NHL.com the schedule he and his staff will be working under in the days leading up to the New Year's Day festivities.

Dec. 23 – Survey the field inside Ralph Wilson Stadium after the Buffalo Bills' football game against the New York Giants. Lay roads in order to move equipment to the field before midnight. At midnight the crew steps in and brings equipment on site.

Dec. 24-25 – Install sub-floor, which means the insulation, plywood and plastic.

Dec. 26 – Install piping system and boards. At night cover the piping system with an inch of sand and saturate the sand so it freezes solid.

Dec. 27 – Build first inch of ice by using hoses that will spray a mist.

Dec. 28-29 – Take Zambonis on the ice to do a shave and four hot floods, and then hope to paint the ice white, as well as paint the lines and logos before sealing it with another three-quarters of an inch of ice.

Dec. 30 – Another shave and more hot floods, and prepare for the teams to practice.

Dec. 31 – Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins practice.

Jan. 1 – First puck is scheduled to drop at 1:20 p.m.

-- Dan Rosen

Due to his profession, Craig sees the game from a unique perspective.

"I watch their feet, because that's where my work is," he said. "When I see them doing these incredible things, that's when I say, 'Wow, now I know why I'm doing what I am doing.' It's for moments like that."

Just don't expect him to be watching with the closest eye come 1 p.m. on New Year's Day. Craig's ice already will be created, but he'll be crazy-busy in the hours and minutes leading up to the Winter Classic.

"Everybody knows the morning of a game I'm super-intense, on everybody and checking details," Craig said. "I enjoy it after the game. Once the tape comes out and I'm at home, I sit there and enjoy it."

During the game, he has to make sure everything is running smoothly, from the two 400-ton refrigeration units that already are stationed roughly 500 feet away from the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium, to something as simple as the Zamboni drivers.

If there are any hiccups, Craig will not hesitate to keep the teams off the ice.

He remembers delaying the start of the Heritage Classic for 15 minutes so the Zamboni driver could do a second ice cut to make the playing surface as strong as possible.

"They all thought it was for broken glass, and it was being reported it was for broken glass, but it wasn't for broken glass at all," Craig recalled. "If I have to delay for a half-hour, I'll delay for a half-hour and people will be aware of that."

While game day will be hectic, Craig's craziest time actually is right now.

"I have a hotel room to sleep in, but it's the fear factor that keeps you (at the stadium)," Craig said. "Once we get past Day 3, hopefully I'll have a comfort level to be able to go for a cup of coffee and get away for a little while."

Craig, though, noted the squeeze officially is on.

He had 14 days to prepare for the Heritage Classic, but the Buffalo Bills' game against the New York Giants this past weekend meant he only has seven to get ready before the Sabres and Penguins are scheduled to practice at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Dec. 31.

That means this is a round-the-clock operation, with 12 to 20 workers taking turns in 12-hour shifts. Craig will have the facilities managers from the HSBC Arena on site, but not until after the Sabres play at home game against Ottawa on Wednesday.

"From the 27th to the end of the game we'll have logged over 400 man-hours," Craig said. "We'll have well over 1,000 man-hours by the time it's all said and done."

Buffalo's unpredictable weather -- be it snow, sleet, rain, or wind -- can't stop Craig and his staff, not if the Winter Classic is to go off without a hitch.

"You work through what you need to work through," Craig said. "If it's snowing, you put on your hat and gloves and you just keep on going. At the end of the day what is asked of us is to make things work."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.
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