Those gale force winds that blew through Chicago on New Year’s Day were not your typical Windy City gusts, but a huge sigh of relief from the NHL’s ice crew.
After a roller coaster couple of weeks, Mother Nature decided to give NHL ice guru Dan Craig and his crew a break just in time for the puck to drop on the 2009 Winter Classic.
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While most people don’t take delight in the prospect of a cloudy day, those who labored through frigid cold and unseasonable warmth, rain and snow, the overcast skies that greeted the ice crew when it arrived at historic Wrigley Field hours before game time were the best present imaginable.
“We got what we wanted. It was absolutely perfect,” said Don Moffatt, the NHL’s Facilities Operations supervisor. “It was a high of 34 [degrees] and cloudy and no sun on the sheet that didn’t affect the ice quality, so it was a perfect day for us.”
A little more than 24 hours earlier, perfection was the furthest thing from Moffatt’s mind. Overnight temperatures dipped to single digits and caused the ice to contract, leaving a web of stress cracks scattered around the rink. By the time the crew arrived early on Dec. 31, they were greeted with an icy mess and little time to fix the rink before the Blackhawks’ midday practice.
“If you got out there with a pair of skates, no matter how thick it was, it would just break apart,” said Moffatt, who served as the director of facility programs with Serving The American Rinks for four years before joining the NHL.
“It would be really poor quality ice to skate on, real brittle and would break right off the panels in huge chunks.”
With weather forecasts calling for another frigid night, the crew was expecting to spend their New Year’s Eve babysitting the rink in an ongoing battle with the elements. As it turned out, two hours before the ball dropped, temperatures warmed enough to give the crew confidence that they could leave Wrigley in time to ring in 2009.
Still, while others were caught up in the revelry, the crew kept an eye on the rink from afar as sensors placed in the ice relayed constant temperature readings to their cell phones and computers throughout the night.
By the time they crossed over the ivy-covered threshold leading into the park, the ice was in great shape and ready hours before the teams hit the ice for a pregame skate.
The process of constructing an ice rink on a baseball field began on Dec. 17 when semi-trucks arrived carrying the new ice surface, which consists of 240 aluminum panels, each 30 feet long by three feet wide, along with boards, glass and benches. Other than a three-day Christmas break, the crew was on site transforming the “friendly confines” into the “frozen confines.” Through it all, they battled every conceivable type of weather.
“Every day it was different. It was summertime a couple of days and then the coldest wintery conditions you can imagine,” Moffatt said. “It was way too cold right before Christmas, and we couldn’t do anything so we sent the crew home. Then it’s 60 degrees one day followed by snow the next.
“But it all worked out. Today was a perfect day.”
After the game, several members of the Detroit Red Wings sought out the ice crew to compliment them on the ice conditions. For those who had labored long and hard to overcome the elements and create the perfect playing surface, it was all the thanks they needed.
“It makes all those 16-18 hour days worth it. It’s a good feeling,” said Moffatt.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. We weren’t too late, and we weren’t too early. We got it right at the right time."