By Stu Hackel
NEW YORK -- It's mid-morning in the Bronx. The foggy dawn has given way to an overcast sky as a chilly breeze blows over the Harlem River from Manhattan. You can't say it's either baseball weather or hockey weather; it's too cold for one, not cold enough for the other. If feels more like football weather and, sure enough, the gridiron markings from the Pinstripe Bowl still line the outfield.
The entirety of Yankee Stadium, however, looks more like a construction site. Bundled stacks of stage flooring are placed at regular intervals in a rectangle on the diamond. Inside the rectangle, a few hundred small plywood squares, over which the staging will be placed, dot the grass. The warning track everywhere is protected by a broad ribbon of some sort of hard white material on which one or two utility vehicles scurry back and forth. Its path runs down through the spine of center field, too, and around the rectangle in the infield that in a few days will be transformed into an ice rink.
Very little is happening at the moment. The mostly empty ballpark seems to be yawning, stretching, still just waking up. Not Mike Craig. He's already had a few meetings and in about an hour, he has a date with a bunch of cameras and microphones. A 53-foot long truck, a portable refrigeration unit, will be pulling up on Jerome Avenue outside the Stadium and Craig, who heads up the crew building the rink and making the ice, will meet the press.
This is how the National Hockey League's takeover of Yankee Stadium began on Wednesday. In less than two weeks, on Jan. 26, the Rangers and Devils will take the ice that Craig and company create for a Sunday matinee outdoor regular season game. The following Wednesday evening, the Rangers will return to take on the Islanders.
For Craig -- a boyish-faced 37-year-old, a lifelong hockey guy from Western Canada who grew up in the small towns of Bonnyville and Spruce Grove outside Edmonton -- being at the Big Ballpark in the Big Apple is "fairy tale stuff. I mean, the New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium. To be in the center of it is pretty amazing."
"Doing the first hockey games in Yankee Stadium, we don't take that lightly," Craig says, walking on the concourse behind the first level of seats, photographs of Yankees World Series action on the walls behind him, left field in front of him. "We feel privileged to be in here."
He inhales the environment. "You see the championship banners up there with all the years on them, all those kind of things, even seeing the big Yankees sign out in center field. All those different things are pretty special when you look around and take it all in."
No, this isn't exactly the original House the Ruth Built, and the rink won't be an idyllic frozen pond in the woods or on a farm. If you're Mr. Literal, this modern spectacle and celebration of hockey may not be your style. Contrived or not, fans and players at all levels of North American hockey -- from high school and junior, to collegiate, to minor pros and the NHL -- have unhesitatingly embraced outdoor games. It's been a return to the roots, ever since the first "Cold War" game between Michigan and Michigan State in 2001 at Spartan Stadium, and the November 2003 Heritage Classic at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, when the Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens.
That game turned Craig's father Dan, the longtime ice engineer for the Oilers, into something of a hockey celebrity. Dan Craig now heads up all the NHL ice crews, including this year's triumphant New Years Day spectacular in Ann Arbor, where over 105,000 fans and a few dozen skaters and coaches braved the snow and freezing temperatures as the Maple Leafs beat the Red Wings.
Dan is now in balmy Southern California, laying down the ice sheet at Dodger Stadium for the Jan. 25 outdoor game between the Kings and Ducks. That's a different sort of operation than Yankee Stadium due to the prevalent sunlight, the enemy of all ice makers. Dan's crew is working mostly in the late afternoons and through the nights, when the sun is down. They place insulated blankets over the rink to keep it from melting during the day while they sleep.
Which is not to say Mike and the East Coast crew have an easy task. The process is never quite as simple as pouring water in a tray, closing the freezer door and walking away. Making artificial outdoor ice anywhere means the absence of the controlled conditions afforded by an indoor arena, and the wild temperature swings New York has experienced this winter -- 25 degrees one day, 55 the next, 12 the next, in the 50s again a few days later -- may actually make the Yankee Stadium job trickier than the one in Chavez Ravine. The temperature of the ice, which is painstakingly built up day by day, layer by layer, until it's two inches thick, must be constantly monitored. The local forecast means everything. Mike Craig's crew, about a dozen experienced icemakers, will meet frequently to formulate responses for whatever the weather throws at them.
"We do look up into the sky a lot and try to figure those things out," he says. "Thirty two and cloudy is perfect. Could we have that every day?" he jokingly asks a New Yorker. He knows the answer.
While one eye is on the weather forecast, the other is on the production schedule. If conditions delay them during the day, they will be forced to work at night, too.
Most of us see these big baseball and football stadiums when they are occupied, the stands and the playing surface a kaleidoscope of color, sound and movement. But the icemen do most of their work in relative solitude, in front of thousands of empty seats and at low decibel levels.
"A lot of the special moments come when there's nobody around and we're just making ice and you have the whole stadium to yourself," Craig says. "It's just quiet. It's just us."
Eventually, the layering will be strong enough for a test drive, one that adheres to a little tradition they've developed that symbolizes the icemen's teamwork. They all lace up their skates, tromp out to the rink and sit on the boards. Only at the count of three do they simultaneously jump on as a group so no one can say they were the first. Then they'll take some turns, play a little shinny, see how it feels beneath their steel blades and go on from there.
By the time Game Day arrives, the crew can get so focused on the playing surface that they sometimes forget where they are. "We get there early," Craig says, "We're preparing for the game, really concentrating on what we're doing, and the next thing you know -- you don't even realize it -- the doors are open, the stadium is full and we're about to play this huge game here in front of this big audience."
Because many of the icemen are former players, or still play recreationally, they understand better than anyone how their work impacts what the fans see. NHL hockey has never been as skillful or speedy as it is now. "When you're down at rink level and you see how fast the guys skate, how quick their reactions are, how fast the puck comes off their sticks, the plays that are made, it's unbelievable how fast that is," Craig says. And he knows the players can only get to their highest level when the ice beneath them matches the quality of their talents.
While this is the first time Mike Craig has led a crew for an NHL outdoor game, he's no rookie. After finishing Junior A hockey in Alberta, he was a teenager with little idea about what to do with himself. A few heart-to-heart talks with his father steered him into the family business, the arena and facility industry. "Going into this field," he says, "allowed me to stay around hockey, be around hockey, which is something I love."
He attended Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (known locally as SAIT Polytechnic), majoring in power engineering while skating for the school team until graduation in 1999. At around six-feet and maybe 190 pounds, Craig looks fit enough today to still be a threat on the ice, at least as a beer leaguer.
He got his first job -- "a rink rat Zamboni driver," he calls it -- when he was 21, right after graduating SIAT, working at the brand new 7,000 seat Skyreach Place, now called Prospera Place. It's a multi-use arena that's home ice for the major junior Kelowna Rockets in Kelowna, British Columbia. The scenic resort town on Lake Okanagan between Calgary and Vancouver is where Mike Craig settled and a co-worker from his Skyreach days, fellow rink rat Jeff Fletcher, is part of the Yankee Stadium crew.
Craig eventually found his way back to Edmonton for a few years to work with the Oilers, then started his own arena consulting business, managing ice conditions for Memorial Cup Tournaments, Canada's junior hockey championship. He became his father's right-hand man on big projects, starting with that first Heritage Classic game, the subsequent NHL outdoor games, and three Olympic hockey tournaments in Salt Lake City, Torino and Vancouver.
When the NHL formulated its ambitious six-game outdoor schedule for this season, they hired Mike as a facilities manager. He was in Ann Arbor on New Year's Day and after Yankee Stadium, he'll go to Chicago for the Soldiers Field game between the Blackhawks and Penguins in late March.
Shortly after noon, the big trailer arrived, the crests of all the teams playing in what the NHL calls "The Stadium Series" painted on its side. The sun peaked through the clouds and reporters gathered around Mike Craig for some questions. But the bigger attractions were current Rangers Mike Zuccarello and Carl Hagelin, wearing their blindingly bright new outdoor game jerseys, and former Devil Grant Marshall and old-time Islander Jean Potvin, who represented their clubs wearing the normal blue and red home sweaters.
Mike Craig in his blue Stadium Series jacket was just fine moving out of the spotlight. Like NHL referees, who say their best games are the ones where no one notices them, the ice makers' desire is that they, too, don't become part of the game story. They're content to let their ice do the talking.
"When I'm speaking on the phone with people back home, they say, 'We'll watch for you on TV.' You say, 'Hopefully you won't see us on TV.' That's the whole idea. That's always our goal."
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Former NHL director of broadcasting, publishing and video, Stu Hackel has written about hockey for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, SI.com, The Hockey News, The (Montreal) Gazette, Goal magazine and The Village Voice. He wrote his first hockey stories nearly 50 years ago when he published a newsletter for the Gump Worsley Fan Club. You can follow him on Twitter @stuhackel.