As the NHL embarks on its ambitious plan to grow the game — and revenues — by expanding the number of outdoor games exponentially, Dan Craig has been tasked with overseeing the conversion of football and baseball stadiums into hockey rinks.
It is a bold undertaking, one that has made Craig, the NHL’s senior director of facility operations, among the league’s most indispensable executives.
“We go on the road with eight to 10 trucks, and that’s what [we’re] put together to do,” Craig told Metro New York by phone from Los Angeles, where he and his team of eight have been transforming Dodger Stadium into a hockey rink for the Jan. 25 Anaheim Ducks-Los Angeles Kings Stadium Series game.
“[The work is going] well.”
And make no mistake, it is work. Craig estimates it takes his crew eight to 10 days to turn a stadium into a hockey rink, which includes the creation of ice, constructing the board and glass, and platforms for musical acts. The NHL trucks in the ice, boards and glass — “Everything that people find in a normal ice rink, we have in a 53-foot trailer” — and then Craig and his team begin the process of building a hockey rink.
“It’s not just the hockey rink, there are a lot of entertainment elements that have to come in,” Craig said. “[It takes] 48 hours to set up before we start making ice and [then it’s] three, maybe four, days of building ice before we can even put in our lines. Mother Nature sometimes challenges us and we build ourselves [some] bonus time, so that’s why it usually takes eight to 10 days.”
Outside of a Rangers-Kings exhibition game at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas on Sept. 27, 1991, the NHL has attempted to hold its outdoor games in markets where the weather is more conducive to hockey.
The Los Angeles Stadium Series game could be categorized as an experiment to see if a so-called nontraditional marketplace could successfully host an outdoor game.
“If [a nontraditional market is] where the commissioner decides that’s where we’re going to have the game, that’s what we do. And they tell us to come in at a certain time and we set everything up and away we go,” Craig said. “The elements are going to be a little different. The elements are going to challenge you. Right now I’ve got a bright, blue sky here, bright sunshine so… we’re [going] to start up this afternoon and become like hermits and work in the dark.
“When we were in Philadelphia [for the 2012 Winter Classic] we were [at Citizens Bank Park] at six o’clock or seven o’clock in the morning and we could only work until about 10, and then we had to put tarps on top of the ice surface. It’s the same element there. It doesn’t matter where you are, the sun really affects how we make a sheet of ice. We were in Calgary [for the 2011 Heritage Classic] where it was minus-20 and minus-19, and the sun was hitting the boards and melting the ice against the side of the boards, so it doesn’t matter what you try to do. When you have a bright, sunny day, you might as well put blankets on the surface, [put] your feet up and get a little shut-eye.”
The sheer volume of outdoor games the NHL is attempting to play this season has increased Craig’s workload.
Until this year, the most outdoor games the league held in a single season was two in 2010-11. This season, the NHL has scheduled six. The Winter Classic on Jan. 1 was both a critical and commercial success. The NHL has four Stadium Series games, including the Jan. 26 and Jan. 29 Stadium Series Rangers-Devils and Rangers-Islanders games at Yankee Stadium and the March 2 Heritage Classic at BC Place in Vancouver.
Unlike the Winter Classic, where he and his entire team were able to prepare Michigan Stadium and Comerica Park for the events, Craig monitors the progress at Yankee Stadium through text messages and email.
“It’s just that [you know] exactly what’s going on,” Craig said. “It [gives you] an ability to hopefully get four or five hours sleep instead of waking up every couple hours and coming down to the stadium to check on things. So that’s what [modern communication tools] really lets us do— be able to go out for coffee and not worry about any of that type of stuff.”
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.