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NHL ice guru set to battle McMahon Stadium

So it turns out that to create top-quality NHL ice in the great mid-winter Canadian outdoors, you want to have a heating system under the sheet.

Not the first thing backyard-rink makers would think of, but then again Dan Craig didn't become the NHL's facilities operations manager (and ice guru) by being averse to counterintuitive thinking.

In the course of filling his brief - to build pro-quality ice under circumstances where it wouldn't naturally occur, like in a hastily converted swimming pool in Japan - Craig and his team have learned to "pull every trick out of the bag."

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That includes acquiring a special in-line heating system to warm the underside of the ice surface when things get polar.

Because it wouldn't do for frozen water to get too cold in -20 C weather.

"When it gets that cold, it starts getting a little chunky out there, starts breaking away underneath their feet. So we want to make sure we get a heat load up on top," Craig told a conference call on Monday.

After creating a surface that held up (barely) in a driving western Pennsylvania rain at the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, Craig and his cohorts arrive in Calgary this week to take up a new challenge: the Feb. 20 Heritage Classic, that pits the hometown Flames against the Montreal Canadiens.

The difficulties posed by McMahon Stadium in the city's west end are considerable. Because of unpredictable, warm Chinook winds, which can add 25 degrees in a couple of hours, preparing for a given temperature is tough (ask the organizers of the 1988 Winter Olympics).

Craig, who hails from Jasper, Alta., a place where it's dependably cold in winter, was speaking to his Calgary-based brother over the weekend, who cheerfully recounted the 40 C temperature swing that hit the city recently.

Suffice it to say, Craig maintains a near-obsessive relationship with the weather map.

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"I can tell you now that our setup day is going to be 4 C on the 10th, 5 C on the Saturday, 5 C on the Sunday, -1 C on Monday. So, yes, I watch it the long-term weather forecast quite closely," he said.

The long-range forecast calls for about -5 C on game day, which Craig said is optimal.

That news will also be a relief to the players - on a recent stop in Montreal, Flames captain Jarome Iginla admitted he's fervently hoping it's warmer out than his childhood days on Edmonton's outdoor rinks.

"Back then -20 C was all right, you'd just go into the shack and warm up. I don't want to say I'm wimpier now, but …" he said with a laugh.

Others, like Habs goalie Carey Price, are also thinking about matters sartorial.

Price was sporting a Habs tuque last week on the team's bench, but when asked if he'll don it over his mask on Feb. 20 - as Jose Theodore did in the 2003 outdoor game in Edmonton (temperature: -18 C) - he joked that he's trying to come up with an original new look.

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The players can afford to laugh, but the transformation of the McMahon turf into an NHL rink - in another first, workers have laid a sand bed on which the ice will sit - is deadly serious business for Craig.

The installation gets under way in earnest on Friday, and his expectation is Alberta's thin, dry air will create "a very fast sheet of ice."

And it's not like the ice makers have had to deal with a three-metre diving board at one end of the rink, as Craig and his crew did in 1998 for a preseason series between the Flames and San Jose Sharks in Tokyo.

"I have pictures of that. And that is probably one of the weirdest ones that we have been up against," Craig said. "We've done many different things, but that one is - I don't think we'll ever top that one having the diving board at the end of the hockey rink."

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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