Dan Craig wandered around the freshly frozen ice surface at TCF Bank Stadium Tuesday afternoon. He used each step and shuffling of his feet to test the progress of his product.
Craig, the NHL’s senior director of facilities operations, is responsible for transforming TCF Bank Stadium’s football field into a world-class hockey rink. The finished product will host Minnesota’s first outdoor professional hockey game when the Wild face the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday afternoon.
The NHL Stadium Series in Minneapolis will be the 17th outdoor experience Craig and his team has brought to life since the NHL started playing outdoors in 2003.
The construction has matured in what appears to be a seamless process. About 16 semitrailer trucks deliver customized equipment owned by the NHL to build the rink in a week. Craig oversees the operation with a 12-man team and a total of 200 workers have a hand in the project.
“It is fun,” Craig said. “There is a lot of pressure, but you have to have a lot of fun with the guys. We create a team just like a hockey team.
“Everybody has their turn of what they’re supposed to be watching every day and it’s not just one set of eyes. We’ve got 12 sets of eyes out there and a lot of good eyes from this area that are going to be with us, so a lot of pride is on the line.”
Construction began Feb. 9 when the green turf slowly disappeared underneath white decking fastened together like puzzle pieces. The next layer is laser-leveled solid decking that ensures the necessary flat surface to lay the ice pans, make ice and build the surrounding boards.
A refrigeration system with the same power as the one at Xcel Energy Center cools the ice.
By Tuesday, most of the structure had been built and several layers of ice made. The lines, dots and logos were being painted and placed when the sun broke through the clouds and hit the ice. Though this might sound ideal for the many workers, Craig and his crew prefer overcast for their outdoor experiences.
“The sun wants to be part of this show now,” Craig said. “We haven’t seen the sun for like six days and it has been freezing. Every place has its own [challenges].”
The colorful logos and paint can attract heat from the sun, even in extreme cold, and cause soft areas on the ice.
For a while, it was too cold
This isn’t the only challenge the crew has faced since arriving in Minneapolis. Last week’s frigid temperatures meant it was too cold to make ice. This led to long days early this week to keep the process on schedule, but these are just minor problems, according to Craig.
He’s been through much worse during his 14 years building each of the 16 outdoor rinks at NHL events starting in 2003 in Edmonton.
“We knew coming in we were more than likely going to get something [we had to deal with],” Craig said. “You always make sure, whether it’s on the front end or the back end, you have room to slide one way or the other.
“Every set up that we’ve done, they’re a little bit different. We’ve done 16 of them and none of them are set up the same, and I think that’s the fun part of it for all the guys. There is no book. You just hit the ground running and you adapt as you go.”
Over a decade of experience has led to better efficiency and the ability to handle whatever Mother Nature may do.
Craig isn’t worried about this weekend’s forecast temperatures in the upper 40s and possibly 50 with a chance of rain. He’s overcome below-zero temperatures in Calgary, pouring rain in Pittsburgh, and 63 degrees and sunny in Los Angeles.
“We now control our own destiny ’cause we own the trucks, we own the floor, we own everything,” said Don Renzulli, NHL executive vice president of events. “When we first did this it was on plywood. It was using Styrofoam panels to get us level.
“I think we’ve learned a lot.”
Outdoor hockey isn’t new to TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers hosted the Hockey City Classic in January 2014 featuring a doubleheader of men’s and women’s hockey on the rink produced by Chicago-based Intersport.
The temperature fell to 6 degrees and felt like 3 below during the men’s game, but that didn’t keep the 45,021 fans away. The event delivered the largest crowd to ever watch hockey in Minnesota history.
The NHL Stadium Series should assume this feat on Sunday.
“It will be sold out,” Craig said. “All of our games are sold out.
“The state of Minnesota, it’s great for it to be here. There’s a lot of history.”