NHL’s ice guru working non-stop ahead of Centennial Classic

Watch as Exhibition Stadium prepares its ice surface for the upcoming Centennial Classic.

TORONTO — Mike Craig will have a tough time sleeping on New Year’s Eve. He’ll also be checking the weather forecast every 30 minutes from now until the first afternoon of 2017 (while he’s awake, at least).

It’s Craig, the NHL’s senior manager of facilities operations, who’s in charge of ensuring the ice they’re now starting to prepare at Exhibition Stadium is of NHL calibre when the Toronto Maple Leafs play host to the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 1, the NHL’s 20th outdoor game.

“You’re excited, nervous, all those different things come into play,” Craig said on Friday, the third straight day to earn a cold weather alert in Toronto. “You want everything to go well, and making sure that all our temperatures are right where they need to be, monitoring everything all the time.”

It sounds pretty stressful. Luckily, Craig has the help of not only a massive crew but of the world’s largest mobile refrigeration unit, which arrived on Friday. Temper your expectations, though: It isn’t a freezer you can walk around in. It’s a 53-foot trailer that houses everything you’d find in an NHL rink to help keep the ice cold, including a massive compressor.

The stadium that hosted the Grey Cup and MLS final in the last couple of weeks presents some challenges, so it’s likely that refrigeration unit will come in handy. The fact Lake Ontario is nearby is a bit of a wildcard, says Craig, who’s been involved in each of the 19 outdoor NHL games before this one. That can mean wind blowing around and sudden snow, like we saw Thursday.

“We had obviously a bit of a snow event yesterday that we kind of worked through, and we expect to see more during the event, so we’ll work through some of that,” he said. They’ll work through blizzards, wind, hail — you name it.

This is not your classic backyard rink operation in terms of laying down the ice. It’s not that simple.

Not only does it involve the $900,000 mobile refrigeration unit—the NHL actually owns two of these—but the way Craig and his crew lay down the ice doesn’t involve splashing mass amounts of water out of a hose and hoping for the best.

They use a spray boom, which is about 10 feet long, and has approximately 10 different misters.

“We actually spray the ice with a fine layer of water instead of what you would picture: a big hose going out there and just soaking it down,” Craig says. “We build it in very thin, thin layers, and what that does is build a better sheet of ice, a denser, thicker sheet of ice.”

Craig says that between Dec. 20th, when they start to build the ice, until game day, the crew will spray down between 200 to 250 layers of water. By then he expects the ice will be about two inches thick, which is some three quarters of an inch thicker than an indoor rink.

“It is a temporary surface that we’re building on top of, so that adds some stability and a little bit more control of our temperatures,” Craig said.

On Friday, a crew worked on the field, laying down plastic panels overtop of the grass to help protect it. On top of those panels they’ll apply a plywood subfloor, and then ice pans, which the ice will sit on top of.

All the coolant will run through those pans to maintain the optimal ice temperature, and the crew will be working to maintain that from the 20th until New Year’s Day, with Dec. 24 and 25 off.

On Dec. 26th, they’ll paint the ice white, apply the logos and lines a day later, build up more ice, and be ready for the first practices on the 30th.

Ideally, the temperature will be around zero degrees and overcast on Jan. 1. If it’s warmer than that, the refrigeration unit will come in handy.

“We have 300 tonnes of refrigeration back there that is just as big if not bigger than anything we have in an NHL facility, so if it’s a few degrees above freezing, this should be able to handle that for sure,” Craig said. Conversely, if it’s minus-20 (that’s way too cold), they’ll put insulated tarps on the ice surface until it gets to perfect rink temperature, and they’ll remove them once it’s game time.

Craig, who’s from Kelowna, B.C., grew up around an ice-making guru. He’s the son of Dan Craig, who worked making ice for the Oilers and at these outdoor games ever since they started.

He’s learned a lot not only from his dad but also from working the last 19 outdoor games.

“Through all of that, we’ve had some cold games, we’ve had games where we’ve had rain, games where we’ve had snow, very warm, sunny games, so I think up to game number 20 we’ve seen and dealt with quite a few different weather situations,” he said.

No matter what Mother Nature brings on New Year’s, there’s no doubt in Craig’s mind that the ice will be up to NHL standards.

“Our goal at the end of it all is to make sure we’re playing an NHL-calibre game on an NHL rink,” he said. “Our expectation is to get there, no matter what happens.”

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