By Peter Schwartz
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Yankee Stadium, old and new, has seen it all over the years.
From baseball and football to boxing and soccer to concerts and papal masses, the houses that Ruth and Jeter built have played host to just about everything.
The NHL Stadium Series is coming to the Bronx on Sunday, January 26, when the Devils play the Rangers and then again on Wednesday, January 29, when the Islanders skate against the Blueshirts. With the success of the Winter Classic, the NHL has decided to expand the outdoor game schedule, and for the first time we get to experience it here in New York.
But just how are they going to build a hockey rink over a baseball field?
That job belongs to NHL senior director of facilities operations Dan Craig, who will spearhead the construction of the hockey rink for the Ducks-Kings game on January 25 at Dodger Stadium, while his son, Mike, leads the charge in the Bronx.
“We have good leadership with our crew over there,” said the elder Craig. “It’s a great bunch of guys. Once they do the setup, we’ll be in contact probably, three … four … five, maybe six times a day to make sure everything is going well.”
Craig’s son and his crew arrived at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday and began the setup on Thursday. Mike has worked with his dad on every Winter Classic with the exception of the first one in Buffalo back in 2008, and has also worked on three outdoor games in Western Canada on his own.
So dad is confident that there will be a job well done in the Bronx.
“He’s got a great support staff,” said Craig. “A lot of the guys have five years of experience with this system and he’s got great engineers in the refrigeration truck that we’ve had for the past four years, so he’s going to be in good shape over there.”
Iconic venues like Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Michigan Stadium have hosted outdoor games over the years, and now Yankee Stadium will get its chance. While Craig and the NHL have enjoyed tremendous success with games outside, the Bronx is a whole new ballgame!
“Yankee Stadium always has a mystique to it,” said Craig. “Every stadium that we walk into has its own little personalities and you have to learn what they are. Sometimes you have to pull a few little tricks out of the bag. It’s a challenge and it’s exciting.”
For the first time, Craig, his son and the rest of the crew have to prepare for multiple games at one venue. After the Rangers-Devils game, the Rangers-Islanders contest will be played just three days later. Craig and company have come up with a schedule to accommodate a second game.
This was a scenario that they’ve thought about since that first Winter Classic in Buffalo six years ago. Yankee Stadium will serve as the guinea pig in case the NHL decides to again play multiple games at one venue.
“This just sets us up for the future, that we can play more than one game on the surface as its set up,” said Craig.
While the Winter Classic has been one of the marquee NHL events over the years, there are probably some fans who were confused when they heard that there would be hockey at Yankee Stadium.
Just how in the name of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera will the likes of John Tavares, Ryan Callahan and Martin Brodeur be able to play hockey on a baseball field?
The elaborate setup will transform the grass playing surface into a world-class hockey rink. The baseball field slopes away from first base to third base, so the NHL places their system on an elevated deck that is between six and eight inches off the ground. Then plywood and aluminum panels are installed before the ice can be made.
“Everything is rigid and everything is locked in together,” said Craig. “The refrigeration package that we have is similar to what they make ice with in Madison Square Garden, Nassau Coliseum or the Prudential Center. It’s basically the same equipment.”
The only difference is that the NHL has perfected making ice outdoors, with a pair of trucks that can transport the system from coast to coast.
While Craig and his crew work the magic to create a rink in any stadium, the NHL can’t control the elements. Sometimes that’s a good thing. It was a winter wonderland in Buffalo in the first Winter Classic and then again this past New Year’s Day at “The Big House.”
But if you have purchased tickets for either of the Yankee Stadium games you might be concerned about the 2011 game in Pittsburgh between the Capitals and Penguins. That game had to be shifted from the afternoon to the evening because of rain.
According to accuweather.com, the extended forecast for the January 26 Devils-Rangers contest currently shows 70 percent chance of snow showers with a high of 34 degrees and a low of 29. For the January 29 Islanders-Rangers game, the evening forecast calls for partly-to-mostly cloudy skies with a high of 29 degrees and a low of 20.
The NHL will examine the weather and see what kind of systems are coming through before Commissioner Gary Bettman consults with hockey operations on a decision.
All Dan and Mark Craig can do is make the ice and hope for the best.
“My job is to make the surface safe for the players to play, and it’s an NHL-caliber ice surface,” said the elder Craig.
Based on what we’ve seen from past NHL outdoor games, it should be quite an atmosphere at Yankee Stadium later this month. Before the NFL stages its first ever cold-weather Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, the Islanders, Rangers and Devils are going to battle the elements on a sheet of ice built in the Bronx.
Thanks to Dan Craig, his son Mike and their crew, Kyle Okposo can fire a pass to Tavares for a goal right around the same spot where Jeter can field a ground ball and fire to Mark Teixeira at first base. Brodeur and Henrik Lundqvist can make saves just about where the Yankees’ third baseman can snare a line drive.
I can’t wait to take my son to the game. We’ll get to the ballpark early, have a bit to eat and then take our seats behind first base … er … make that behind the goal.
It’s time to drop the puck at Yankee Stadium!
For ticket information, go here.
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