Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Dan Craig wakes up and checks his phone. National Hockey League vice presidents of facilities operations — they’re just like us.
Except Craig isn’t up at 7 a.m., checking his texts or Twitter. He’s up at 2:30 a.m., looking at a custom-built app designed to monitor the temperature of the ice housed in rinks at the league’s outdoor games. In this case, he’s monitoring the build for Saturday’s Stadium Series game at Heinz Field between the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.
If Craig sees 22 degrees Fahrenheit or thereabouts, he goes back to sleep. If not, it’s time to make a move.
“I roll over, and I check (the app), and if it’s something that’s not right, I just put my jeans on and come down and I see what’s going on,” Craig said Tuesday at Heinz Field.
He was speaking from the seats near center ice — or what will be center ice by Saturday. The pressing issue of the day, and week, are unseasonably warm temperatures. As Craig spoke, it was about 65 degrees on the North Shore.
The temperature of the ice, though, is where it needs to be: 22.5 degrees, with a quarter-inch already made and three-eighths more on the way Tuesday night. Ice, typically, is about three-quarters of an inch thick, meaning there should be only about one-eighth of an inch left to spray down between Wednesday and Friday, when teams are set to practice.
Coordinating with them, Craig says, is someone else’s department.
“They know that when they’re scheduled to be ready,” he said, “we’ll be ready.”
It’s not going to get any cooler, though; Wednesday’s high is 67 degrees, Thursday’s is 70 and Friday’s is 73, according to AccuWeather. That’s not an issue, Craig said, given that the NHL has held two outdoor games in California and one in Denver when temperatures were similar.
“We have all of our data that we have out of those three venues,” Craig said. “We’re running the same truck, we’re running the same floor.”
That pump truck, parked outside Heinz Field, circulates 300 tons of coolant through 365 feet of six-inch mains to tubes in aluminum pans, housed below the elevated ice deck. The trip takes 90 seconds.
“That little baby back there can be a dragster,” Craig said of the truck. “Sometimes you have to watch, it can overrun you if you’re not careful.”
Plus, temperatures are on track to drop to 40 degrees by puck drop.
“Forty?” Craig said. “We like 40.”
The other potential roadblock is rain, which is in the forecast Saturday. The league has gotten better at dealing with that since the 2011 Winter Classic, also at Heinz Field, which was delayed several hours and played in, let’s say, sub-optimal conditions.
There’s no precipitation in the forecast until game day, when the ice-making process should be long complete. Then, Craig’s task is more about making sure condensation on the ice surface freezes quickly, removing whatever doesn’t and then ensuring that the surface is suitably flat.
“We’ve had a couple events now that we’ve had heavy rains,” Craig said. “We got a good crew that is very well-versed on the way that we’re gonna remove excess. We monitor it and we run the (coolant) truck as hard as we can until it can’t keep up anymore, and then we have a strategy to remove ice off the back end of the rink.”
That strategy involves custom-built, smaller-than-standard “zamboni” machines. On the other end of the spectrum are the thermal blankets — reflective on the top side, white on the back side — that were protecting the ice from Tuesday afternoon’s sunlight. You can buy something similar at Home Depot.
Those stay in place until temperatures drop to the low 50s or the sun goes down, Craig said.
All that contributes to a mindset where the word “impossible” disappears from Craig’s vocabulary. In other words, they’re going to play, no matter what.
“I don’t go to a ‘Plan B,’ “ he said. “Nope. I just don’t. Nope. That’s not even … It’s just one of those things — we’re gonna make it happen, and it happens.”
February is easily the most miserable time of the year in the Burgh. Stiller season is over, it’s still a couple months away from opening day at PNC Park, and the Penguins are in the dog days of the hockey season. There’s really nothing better to do than sit in your house and stuff your fat face because it’s typically cold as a motherfucker outside. On top of that, it seems like you have to shovel your damn driveway every other day. It’s flat out horrible.
Last year, when the NHL announced the Penguins would be hosting the Flyers at Heinz Field as one of the 2017 Stadium Series matchups, it seemed like a no-brainer. What better way to spend a weekend than heading dahn to the Burgh for a good old fashioned rivalry game in the dead of winter. The weather will be perfect, right?
I’m all for this random heat wave Mother Nature decided to gift us during the shittiest month of the year, but this is pretty awful when it comes to the game on Saturday. Look, I get that the NHL has the technology to build a rink that can withstand high temperatures. There’s two issues I have with this, though.
- Nobody wants to watch a hockey game outside when it’s warm outside. Plain and simple. People would rather be outside doing things they normally can’t do in the winter time. Not watching some bullshit regular season hockey game. When I think of warm weather and hockey, I think of the playoffs (and getting shithoused on a golf course). And quite frankly, it seems like the NHL is shoving this outdoor hockey thing down our throats. There’s like eight outdoor games a year now, and both of these teams have already played in like three games a piece. The novelty is starting to wear off.
- Even though these outdoor rinks can handle higher temperatures, that doesn’t mean the game isn’t going to be a slop fest if it rains. This Dan Craig guru can talk all he wants about how great his crew can remove water from the ice, but the fact of the matter is the game will fucking blow. Players can’t stick handle, the puck doesn’t move as well, and there will be break after break after break. It will be absolutely brutal to watch. When rain started to come down during the 3rd period of the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz, it was like watching a football game when there’s a foot of snow on the field.
Hopefully the forecast changes on Saturday and we’re blessed with a good game to watch between two teams that absolutely hate each other. But as for now, the one and only time Mother Nature has decided to bless Pittsburgh with some decency has come at the absolute worst fucking time for an outdoor hockey game. Where are all those global warming truthers now?