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NHL begins moving in at Gillette Stadium

Workers installed the foundation for the ice rink to be used for the NHL Winter Classic game at Gillette Stadium on Monday.
Workers installed the foundation for the ice rink to be used for the NHL Winter Classic game at Gillette Stadium on Monday.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

FOXBOROUGH — New England weather for New Year's Day remains a bit of guesswork, but Dan Craig, the man in charge of creating the ice for the NHL's Winter Classic on Jan. 1, said Monday morning he is counting on temperatures in the high 20s or low 30s.

And, no surprise, he's also counting on a smooth, pristine sheet of ice, despite weather over the next few days that could reach 65 degrees.

"We did this in California, and it was 80 degrees," recalled Craig, who has directed a couple of dozen of the NHL's outdoor buildouts. "That was very warm for that time of year. Normally it's around 65 degrees. That's what we are going to get here, and we're going to be fine."

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Craig, the NHL's chief icemaker, arrived here Wednesday and won't leave the Route 1 grounds until after the final horn blows for the Jan. 1 game between the Bruins and Canadiens. Dozens of workers began rolling out the rink's infrastructure on the Gillette Stadium field Sunday at approximately 7 p.m., only three hours after the Patriots played their final regular-season home game.

Over the next week or so, Craig said, hundreds of workers, including personnel of both the NHL and Toronto-based BaAM Productions, will produce the main ice surface, along with a much smaller auxiliary surface, and all the accompanying on-field staging inherent in what has turned into an annual marquee event for the NHL.

The Winter Classic was held in Boston once before, on Jan. 1, 2010, when the Bruins edged the Flyers, 2-1, in overtime at Fenway Park. This will be its debut at Gillette, where more than 60,000 spectators, including a boisterous percentage of rowdy Habs fans making the trip south from Quebec, will fill the three-tiered stands and luxury boxes of Bob Kraft and sons.

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As Craig spoke at the southeast corner of the field, workers busily continued to lug in material and shape the main rink (200 feet by 85 feet), centered symmetrically on the 50-yard line. Unlike the ice surface at the 2010 event, the ice sheet is now constructed on a raised platform, the surface of which is some 10 to 12 inches above the field's artificial turf.

At Fenway, Craig noted, a double layer of plywood three-quarters of an inch thick acted as the rink's sole subflooring. The plywood is still utilized, Craig said, but as additional planking layered on top of the raised, black platform, assembled in sheets 4 feet by 8 feet.

"We have learned a lot since the last time we were here at Fenway," Craig said, the Foxborough temperature hovering at 50 degrees as he spoke. "Everything now is built on a very solid deck. Going back to California, that is something we learned we needed to do. As you can tell, this is almost California weather even though it's almost Christmas. And we are ready to go."

According to Craig, snow and severe cold can be two of the greatest impediments, the former when it comes to playing the game, the latter when it comes to the rink's buildout, which routinely takes eight days.

The ice here, he promised, will be ready to go Dec. 29, some 48 hours before the Bruins and Habs practice here on Dec. 31 — the same day the Bruins and Canadiens old-timers will face off in their alumni game.

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"It is never easy," Craig said. "If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. It is a challenge, and like anything else, it's a major event, now one of our marquee events for the season. Wherever they tell us to go, we go, and whatever Mother Nature throws at us, we deal with it."

It all comes alive for the TV audience at 1 p.m. on New Year's Day.

"That is why we do it, right there," said Craig, who has seen the NHL find a niche among a busy menu of college football bowl games. "I don't even have to see the [fans'] eyes. I only have to hear, 'My whole day revolves around the Winter Classic.' And I think, 'That's why we do it.' I am a happy man. I am even happier when I get the players out there, and then I see their eyes and they are happy to be out there."

Hundreds of workers will spend the next week preparing the rink at Gillette Stadium.
Hundreds of workers will spend the next week preparing the rink at Gillette Stadium.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeKPD.