Ice-making is serious business.
Serious enough that Mike Craig doesn’t expect to be able to witness the action on the ice he’s helping create at Commonwealth Stadium for the National Hockey League’s Heritage Classic on Oct. 29.
Craig, an NHL senior director of facilities and hockey operations, very likely won’t be watching, say, Connor McDavid undress three, four or more Calgary Flames en route to notching a hat-trick or perhaps witnessing Leon Draisaitl bury multiple point-blank power-play shots past whatever goalie the opposition puts in net.
He and his fellow senior director Derek King expect to be monitoring ice conditions all day, including during the main event itself.
“We’re fine-tuning all the way along, really trying to stay on top of every small detail leading up to the game and throughout the game, so there isn’t really an opportunity to sit back and enjoy,” Craig told CTV News Edmonton on Thursday, Day 4 of working to transform the football field normally used by the CFL’s Edmonton Elks into a space that includes a hockey rink and entertainment stages.
“You do try to take a moment here and there to appreciate kind of what we’re doing, but for the most part, we’re quite busy throughout the entire day.”
In all, the process of creating the Heritage Classic environment will take about a week and a half, from getting the keys to the venue on Oct. 16 to Oct. 28, when the Oilers and the Flames are scheduled to practise on the ice at Commonwealth.
By then, each piece of the environment is expected to be in place, with 20,000 gallons of water sprayed to build up an ice surface two inches thick, with a portable ice plant keeping it frozen.
“Just like for the players, practice day is important because it allows us to be able to take a step back and say, ‘OK, we’re here. We’re ready for the game. We get through practice day, kind of fine-tune stuff,'” said King, adding they’ll be watching the weather forecast, including how much sun is expected and, heaven forbid, any warm rain.
“And then comes game day. It happens so quickly. You kind of walk in and you try to enjoy it as much as you can.”
NHL HAS STAGED 37 OUTDOOR GAMES THE LAST 20 YEARS
And there have been a lot of outdoor NHL games to enjoy over the last 20 years, 37 of them since the league first staged a regular-season contest in an open-air stadium at the inaugural Heritage Classic at Commonwealth in 2003 featuring the Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens.
Craig was a member of the ice-making crew on the frigid day in late November that year working for his father, Dan Craig, who was then the NHL’s ice-making guru, a position he held until retiring in 2021. Before that, Dan Craig was in charge of the ice at Northlands Coliseum, the Oilers’ former home.
“We were here in 2003 with the initial Heritage Classic, so there’s a little familiarity with the venue and the building,” Mike Craig said.
“This venue has been great. The people here have been fantastic to work with. Everything has been fantastic so far.”
Dean Matsuzaki, the NHL’s executive vice-president of events, told media that, while he’s been a part of every outdoor game except the 2003 contest, it was his exposure to Edmonton’s Heritage Classic that, for him, captured the spirit of the extravaganza.
“It is amazing the way people embrace these outdoor games, the excitement within the city that comes along with these games,” Matsuzaki said.
“I was definitely watching the first game here, and I saw the spectacle that it was, and I still must admit I get goosebumps walking into the stadium on game day, every day, every time we do one of these games when you see the full stadium. It is amazing, and it will be amazing next week.”
Heather Seutter, the director of Commonwealth Stadium, was among the 57,167 who attended the 2003 event — “my younger version of myself … was in the upper deck in one of the very cold seats” — and said the opportunity for her and her staff to help host the event is “pretty special for all of us.”
“For some of our staff who were here for the original event and are able to be here again for the 20th anniversary is really a legacy that … we can share with the NHL as a hockey town, a hockey city,” Seutter said. “It’s really amazing for us to be able to have that here again in Edmonton.”
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Jessica Robb and Brandon Lynch