2014 Winter Classic: A life in the day of ice guru Dan Craig

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Millions will watch on television across the United States and Canada. More than 100,000 will come to Michigan Stadium, almost certainly setting a world record for hockey attendance. CF-18 fighter jets will fly overhead. The Zac Brown Band, Mayer Hawthorne and The Tenors will perform. The Toronto Maple Leafs will face the Detroit Red Wings in the 2014 Winter Classic.

At the center of the spectacle will be this: an inch and a half of ice, atop less than a quarter 0f an inch of aluminum flooring, atop a chemical solution pumped from a refrigeration trailer, where the temperature can be tuned to within half a degree.

“Everything revolves around that,” said Dan Craig, standing in a fourth-floor club area of the Big House, looking down through a window, literally overseeing the construction of the rink below. “If that doesn’t happen, everything else goes out of orbit.”

Craig is the NHL’s senior director of facilities operations, better known as its ice guru – “for lack of a better term,” he laughed. That means everything revolves around him. If he doesn’t do his job, it affects the players, coaches, fans and countless others. Hockey is a game of inches, and it is played on a surface of inches, and at the highest level it doesn’t matter if the game is indoors or out, if it’s a routine night or special event.

“It’s a regular-season game,” said Craig, wearing a scruffy beard, insulated overalls and work boots, “and that’s where the stress is.”

The early weather forecast looks good for New Year’s Day: cloudy, with a high of 20 degrees Fahrenheit. But playing hockey in a stadium is a challenge no matter what, and the Winter Classic is just the beginning this season. The NHL isn’t putting on one outdoor game. It isn’t putting on two. To boost the business coming out of last season’s lockout, it is putting on six, including one in Los Angeles. How’s that for stress?

Asked to name the biggest advancement the NHL had made since its first outdoor game 10 years ago, Craig doesn’t mention technology or logistics. He sounds like, well, a guru.

“Patience,” he said.

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Craig grew up in Jasper, Alberta, in the same Canadian Rockies where they filmed “Mystery, Alaska,” the 1999 movie about a small-town team facing the New York Rangers on a frozen lake on national television.

He wanted to make plays, not make ice. His favorite player was Stan Mikita. But there were lots of good players, and he said “you find out very soon that you don’t have what they have.” He found out something else before long: He was interested in what the good players depended upon. “I was always amazed and fascinated by the skill of players, and I wanted to make sure that they had the best,” he said.

He began working at his high school rink at age 15, and it was not the glorious job of driving the Zamboni. “You’ve got to start way below the Zamboni,” he said. “There’s dressing rooms to clean and toilets to scrub. Start there. You work your way all the way up the chain.” He worked all the way up to making the ice for the Edmonton Oilers, the best ice in the NHL.

Then, in 1997, he went to work for the NHL itself. One of his first projects: building a rink on top of an empty swimming pool at Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo so the Vancouver Canucks and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim could play two regular-season games to open the season. He said it was probably 72 degrees with 68 percent humidity, and they used the same style of floor and the same type of piping they are using now at Michigan Stadium.

“That’s when you knew,” Craig said. “You knew at that time you weren’t limited in where we could go and the concepts and how the dreams would be.”

Since then, he has helped with “Mystery, Alaska,” connecting the film crew with people who could refreeze a melting lake. He has helped Michigan State, when the school faced near-disaster in October 2001 before its “Cold War” game against Michigan, the first outdoor game of this kind. He has made ice indoors all over the world and outdoors all over North America for NHL events.

The NHL has held two Heritage Classics in Canada and five Winter Classics in the United States. This season it will hold one of each, plus four games in its Stadium Series. Outdoor games have lost much of their novelty nationally, but they are still popular and lucrative locally – so much so that every NHL team wants to host one, even if the market has had one already, even if it is in a warm climate. Though the NHL might not hold six outdoor games next season, the league likely will keep holding multiple outdoor games for the foreseeable future.

The league has invested in so much equipment that it fills a warehouse in Oakville, Ontario. There are two refrigeration trailers, two sets of boards, two sets of glass and more. It takes four shipping containers to carry the stuff needed for each rink – and that doesn’t include all the other stuff needed for staging.

And then there is the manpower. One game is one thing. But six? Craig doesn’t have one crew. He can’t. He can’t be everywhere himself, and this is his full-time job. So he mixes and matches carefully, picking crew members from all over North America, trying to get the right people with the right talents in the right places at the right times.

“Now that we’re doing six games, I can’t pull them away from their regular job for that length of time,” he said. “I can get one of my good guys out for one event, and then another one can get to two events, and another one can only get the tail-end event.”

He has a network of people now, and it’s growing. “Everybody that we have wants to be here – it’s not a job – and they’ll go through the wall,” he said. “They will work all night. It doesn’t matter what goes on. They will make this happen.”

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Craig checked into his Ann Arbor hotel Dec. 11 for a 29-night stay. There is no such thing as a typical day, because his schedule depends on the weather and what needs to be done, but generally he wakes up between 4 a.m. and 4:15 a.m. so he can go over the game reports from the previous night. Yes, he still oversees all the indoor ice, too. “I have the rest of the league to monitor as well through this whole time,” he said.

The van leaves the hotel at 6:45 a.m. to bring Craig and the crew to the stadium. They usually walk around the rink to make sure no surprises have popped up overnight, then go upstairs to the fourth-floor club area for breakfast at 7. They hold a meeting at 7:30 and get to work at 8. Craig doesn’t leave until one of his trusted lieutenants tells him to get out of there. As of Thursday, the earliest he had been kicked out was 7 p.m.

Craig is a perfectionist. “You can ask the guys, I’m never happy,” he said. “I don’t know if I can make a perfect sheet of ice.” Over the years, he has learned so much. The ice is on a floor of aluminum, not concrete like at an indoor arena. Aluminum transfers heat much more efficiently. He can chill the ice just right – or actually warm it when the air is too cold so it won’t become brittle. He sees little things that elude his most experienced crew members.

In the past, he would drive himself nuts if things were a few hours behind schedule. But now he’s more experienced not only at reading the weather and his equipment, but in reading the situation and his people. He never made it as a player, but to make it here he became part ice expert, part GM, part coach.

“Patience,” Craig said. “That’s the biggest advancement. We have timelines, and as long as I am close to my timeline, I’m good. Now it’s like, ‘OK, guys, we’re good. Just relax. I know you guys want to get out there and start spraying water. But hey, let’s just everybody double-check everything.’ ”

Craig will check and double-check everything right through the Winter Classic. He will not stop and enjoy the game, not even for a moment. Afterward, it will take a couple of days to tear apart the rink at Michigan Stadium. Then he can go home to his acreage in Wisconsin, about 45 minutes from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.

He will stay there for four days.

Then he will leave for Los Angeles to set up for the Jan. 25 game at Dodger Stadium. After that, he will go home for a bit, then leave for Chicago to set up for the March 1 game at Soldier Field. (Mike Craig, his son, will go to New York for the Jan. 26 and 29 games at Yankee Stadium and to Vancouver for the Heritage Classic on March 2 at BC Place.) After that, it’s the stretch run of the regular season. After that, the playoffs.

Craig loves his job – both the process and the results. Eventually he will see the results in his man cave, which is full of mementos even though he displays only one item from each event in his basement and puts the rest in storage. But when will he watch the games on television? When will he see everything in orbit?

When even Dan Craig can’t make NHL-caliber ice.

“In the summer,” he said.