The St. John’s IceCaps are hoping the National Hockey League’s ice guru can bring the same magic touch to Mile One Centre he once did with the famously-brilliant ice in Edmonton for nearly 11 years.
Dan Craig, the NHL’s facilities operations manager, was in St. John’s last weekend to work with the Mile One Centre ice crew during the IceCaps’ two-game homestand with the Connecticut Whale.
The call was put out to Craig, through the NHL’s Toronto office, by the IceCaps’ parent club, the Winnipeg Jets.
While Craig and IceCaps’ chief operating officer Glenn Stanford won’t go so far as to say there have been problems with Mile One’s ice, several players privately admit it had a tendency to get ‘snowy’ fairly quickly this season, a frustrating experience for a first-place team whose forte is speed.
“There is 100-plus years of experience with this group (on the Mile One ice crew), but it’s been a while since there was a professional team of any level here.
“I didn’t receive any complaints. It was a call by the Jets to say, ‘Hey, let’s take a look to see what we can do to improve the ice.’ That’s my job around the NHL. I go in and look for ways to improve the systems that we have in place.”
There’s more to making ice, said Craig, than turning on the taps and flooding the floor with water, then cranking up the refrigeration system.
“It’s a huge science,” he said. “Weather changes, and that impacts the ice. It rained all night (last weekend) and the building changed on us, the humidity changed. So adjustments have to be made.
“There’s a new computer system on the refrigeration equipment here, so everybody is learning a new system. It’s an education process for everybody.”
A good sheet of ice, said Craig, is hard and fast, but not to the point where it’s brittle.
“I’ve only been here a few days, watched a couple of practices and saw enough to know this is a fast hockey team,” he said of the IceCaps. “We need to have a good, fast sheet of ice.
“The big thing is not only does it have to be fast, but we must also have density, which means we have to ensure we don’t put too much water down at one time. You have to ensure everything is balanced out.
“We just put a lot of water down (about two hours before game time against the Whale). The next flood will be half the water because it’s just before warmup. We want to make sure we have a good hard sheet for warmup, but not too hard. So the warmup is our toughest one. That’s the one we prepare for first. And then we go to the first period and the second period.
“It’s a constant adjustment during the game. You wouldn’t think half a degree makes a difference, but it makes a big difference to me.”
The Jasper, Alta., native was head of the icemaking crew at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum (later renamed Rexall Place), the rink which had been widely regarded as having the best sheet of ice in the NHL.
Since then, he said, all the surfaces within the league are equally consistent (though players today still complain of the ice at New York’s Madison Square Garden).
“Just like being in the AHL and the NHL, there’s a very fine line to having good ice and great ice ... a very fine line.
“You have to hit all of the elements at the right time. I brought everything we had in Edmonton to the NHL. Everything that we’re seeing happening at Mile One today, it’s all on a time table, exactly what’s happening in the National Hockey League. Everything is done at the proper time. You shave the ice, you put down this amount of water, and the surface temperature is this degree. Everything is on a time table.
“It is a big competition amongst the icemakers in the National Hockey League. And that’s what we want. We want the pride, and that’s what I’m trying to bring to this group here. You want to be the best in the AHL.”
By last Sunday afternoon, Craig had been in St. John’s 72 hours, and 40 of those were spent working on the Winter Classic project. The outdoor showcase around New Year’s Day has been an NHL staple since 2008 when Buffalo played host to Pittsburgh at Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the NFL’s Bills. Since then, games have been played at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park and last year at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, where the NFL’s Steelers play.
This year’s game will feature the New York Rangers in Philly to play the Flyers at baseball’s Citizen Bank Ball Park Jan. 2.
“It’s fun, but it’s a challenge,” Craig said of constructing a rink and making ice outdoors. “I don’t get a whole lot of sleep doing it, but I still look forward to it. Next to the Stanley Cup, it’s the challenge of the year.”
Last year certainly provided a challenge when rain in Pittsburgh almost washed out the game.
“We took 4,000 gallons of water off the ice during the game,” he said. “We converted our Zambonis to giant wet vacs. We reversed the whole process of what we normally do.”