Tackling Ice Surface Challenges at Ford Field
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
DETROIT Dan Craig has been home for nine of the past 100 days. And he can thank college hockey for part of that.
As the NHL's Facilities Operations Manager, a big focus of his job in recent years has been coordinating the development of ice surfaces and rinks in various football stadiums and outdoor facilities. This job has become more prevalent as the NHL has played games in Japan, and the growing list of Winter Classics in stadiums, most recently at Fenway Park.
But he tackles the challenge the way a player welcomes every step in a long season, treating each one as his personal mission. His goal? To see the awed expressions on the players' faces as they come out on the ice for the first time.
"Their face, their eyes, their body language — that's what tells me we're doing the right job," Craig said.
College hockey has played its share games outside too, most recently at Camp Randall Stadium in Wisconsin and Fenway Park, where Boston University and Boston College played a week after the NHL's game. But when college hockey decided to put a Frozen Four in an "indoor" football facility — Detroit's Ford Field — the powers that be reached out to Craig. And Ford Field has provided its own set of challenges.
"There's a mountain out there to be climbed, and there's a challenge, and I said, 'We can do this,'" Craig said.
Unlike the outdoor games, playing in Ford Field creates concerns about humidity. As the humidity rolled in Wednesday, the playing surface became "chippy," according to some players. Others said that the surface wasn't great, but not as bad as was rumored.
"Humidity is not a friend of ours," Craig said. "It automatically falls to the ice surface, because it hits the coldest surface in the building, so [the ice] automatically attracts it like a magnet. So when we get too much humidity, and we lose control on the floor, it gets sticky and gummy, and it affects the feel of the puck from one pass to the next."
Right behind the humidity, however, was a cold front, that Craig said couldn't get here fast enough.
"I do my prayers every night to make sure it gets here a little quicker," he said.
"Moving air on top of the ice is not good for us either, whether it's hot or cold. It all has to do with balance. We want to start the building a little cooler — we want to start it at 57 degrees."
Having 35,000 people in the building will add to the challenges.
"The ambient air is a huge factor, and it really has to do with where the air here meets the ice surface itself," Craig said. "We had the building down to 55 degrees the other day, so we know it can be cold."
Craig gives each venue a checklist, then, as the event gets closer works closely with the operations and engineering staffs of the building. This rink is the same one that was used at Fenway Park.
"One of the things we've learned from the Winter Classic, and from our trips to Japan, is we need the full seven days," Craig said. "In case you have a little hiccup here, and so you don't run your crews into the ground. ... The same crew that does the setup, works the event. So you've got to make sure that everybody is on top of their game on game day.
"They have our criteria long in advance, and they have had a long time to try to tweak the building and figure out what they can do with various handling units, warming the air up, cooling the air down, how they get balance, the intake from outside. ... I leave that basically up to them becausee I give them the criteria, and we're in constant contact, having little side meetings every two hours. We have two refrigeration engineers up at the truck all the time, and they're basically tied to my hip. We're changing the temperature half a degree here, half a degree there, just to try to feel where everything is."
Humidity went from 44 to 62 percent today. But tomorrow is another day, and Craig will be ready with all of the necessary tweaks.
"You try to fight with whatever challenges mother nature gives you," Craig said.