The National Hockey League and the Pittsburgh Penguins officially "kicked off" the countdown to the 2017 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series between the Pens and intrastate rival Philadelphia Flyers at Heinz Field, home of the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers, on Monday with the arrival of the Ice Plant.
"When they bring the ice trucks in, that's when everybody gets really excited about it and it becomes real," Penguins COO Travis Williams said. "We've been planning this for quite some time. A lot of planning is in place but it becomes real when you move the ice trucks and see the deck being put down. That's really exciting for us."
The 53-foot, 300-ton trailer, the world's largest mobile refrigeration unit, houses state-of-the-art ice-making and ice-monitoring equipment used to create NHL-caliber ice for the game, which will take place on Feb. 25.
The trailer arrived Sunday night from Toronto, but the crew began working on laying the groundwork for the rink on Monday.
"The setup has gone really well so far," said Dan Craig, the NHL's VP of facilities operations/hockey operations. "We are already down to the field with all the piping. Being here before really helped us on the original setup. We're in good shape."
'Before' would be the 2011 NHL Winter Classic, which was also held at Heinz Field, between the Pens and Washington Capitals. Although Craig and his crew know what to expect from the venue, they still have to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature has intended for them for this year's Stadium Series.
"I have to be aware four-five days out exactly what's happening (weather-wise) so the engineers on the truck can be ready for whichever comes through," Craig said.
Craig's crew, which numbers over 200 people, consists mostly of local people in Pittsburgh, and they do the bulk of their work at twilight to get the ice ready for the big game.
"We have a lot of local people here from the Penguins, from the building working with us, local crew, local pipefitters, local carpenters," Craig said. "You can tell when you walk onto the site the pride in this city. It's fantastic.
"When the sun is out it makes no sense for us to try to work. So when the sun goes down we'll work all night. The most challenging (aspect) is getting sleep."
The Pens plan on leaving the ice up following the Pens-Flyers game to allow local amateur hockey games and college games to be played at the field, something that couldn't be done in the previous Winter Classic because the Steelers needed the field for the NFL postseason. Robert Morris University will host Niagara for a college hockey classic on the ice.
Even though it will be a unique experience, Craig and his crew view this as another important game during a grueling 82-game schedule.
"These aren't exhibition games. There are points on the table," Craig said. "This is late in the season and every point counts. We never lose focus of that."
That being said, there is a novelty to the game and the experience. And Williams is hoping for a magical evening visual with some help from the elements.
"What I've seen is 40s and 30s (degrees) during the course of the day and light flurries in the evening," he said. "It would be kind of nice to have a little bit of snow falling from the sky for that game."
Tickets are still available and can be purchased here.