FOXBOROUGH — Upon arriving at Gillette Stadium on New Year’s Day for the NHL’s glittering Winter Classic, the crowd of some 65,000 will focus first on the standard-sized sheet of ice (200 feet by 85 feet) centered horizontally on the gridiron’s 50-yard line.
It will be as if Dan Craig, the NHL’s maître d’ice magic, transported the frozen water from any of the league’s 30 rinks across North America and dropped it here on land that long ago served as a harness track. But now it will be the Bruins and Canadiens racing in circles, skating inside a made-for-TV portable rink that is a marvel of engineering, albeit still Mother Nature’s maddening plaything.
“We actually want snow — a little bit of it would be great,’’ said Don Renzulli, executive vice president of NHL Events, who was at Gillette a week ago Monday when the giant rink kit, including 3,000 gallons of glycol, was unpacked. “I do think people turn it on to see what the elements are — and we’ve given them a little bit of everything over the years.’’
As of Tuesday, the forecast for Friday called for a low of 30 degrees ranging to a high of 42, with zero percent chance of precipitation. Anyone in attendance with a memory as far back as February will be sure to bring along hat, gloves, snow shovel, ice melt, and Bridgestone tire chains.
Craig and his crew, as well as the accompanying BaAM Productions company out of Toronto, actually started to take over the playing field early on the evening of Dec. 20, only some three hours after the Patriots wrapped up their regular-season home schedule with a win over Tennessee. Out with the Gronk, in with the rink.
Under the ice
White paint: Workers whiten the ice with 350 gallons of water-soluble paint, along with red and blue lines and logos, roughly halfway through the freezing process.
Ice: 20,000 gallons of water are painstakingly sprayed to create 2 inches of ice. A normal NHL rink is 1-1 inches thick, but a thicker surface is needed to withstand more extreme conditions.
Aluminum trays: 243 custom-made pans hold the glycol pumped from the refrigeration truck, which chills the trays to help maintain a steady temperature.
Plywood: 52,000 square feet of plywood panels are laid atop the subfloor.
Subflooring: 32,000 square feet of decking provides a level and firm surface for the subsequent plywood sheets.
Footings: Adjustable wood and steel constructions help compensate for the crown of the football field.
The goalposts were lowered and stored, not to be seen again until the start of next week, once the NHL breaks down the rink and tows it away following a skating session held for corporate sponsors Saturday.
The rink itself, including sideboards, endboards, protective glass, and its 2-inch-thick sheet of ice, was fully assembled and frozen by the start of this week, a seven- to eight-day process that, according to Craig, required “hundreds of workers and thousands of man-hours.’’
The vast majority of those workers took a two-day Christmas break (Dec. 24-25), but Craig and his crew of a dozen or so ice elves remained in place, using virtually all of that stretch to perform the most vital role of all: painstakingly misting water across the 17,000-square-foot surface that ultimately will be the marquee event’s working stage.
“The last thing you want a hockey player to worry about is what’s underneath his feet,’’ noted Craig, ice chief for the previous seven Classics, dating back to Jan. 1, 2008, in Orchard Park, N.Y., the Buffalo Sabres vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins. “We know these are the best players in the world and they get the best.’’
The big freeze
What the players don’t see, along with everyone in the stands and the millions who watch on TV, is all the hardware and hard work that go into creating the NHL’s traveling outdoor hockey revival show. This isn’t your granddad’s backyard rink.
Among the most critical behind-the-scenes elements is the refrigeration truck, which acts as the pump house for glycol, the freezing element found in kitchen refrigerators around the world. The glycol is pumped out through a massive hose to rinkside, then circulated through a network of smaller hoses laced through a network of 243 aluminum trays (or pans) that are filled with the water, spanning the width and length of the playing surface.
Without the glycol, which continuously circulates in order to draw any heat away from the trays, freezing the water would be left to the whim of the day’s temperatures. Thus far this winter, the Gillette rink would be just another backyard rink rendered a forlorn puddle. The glycol makes ice a sure thing, to the point that Craig and crew can virtually guarantee a surface temperature of 22 degrees.
“It’s like you wouldn’t be alive if you didn’t have your lungs,’’ said Craig, eschewing the suggestion that the refrigeration truck is the heart of the operation. “The same if you didn’t have your heart. So every part is very, very important — none more important than another.”
From the ground up, the construction includes a critical subflooring, which has been improved vastly since the Classic was held at Fenway Park on Jan. 1, 2010, the year the Bruins defeated the Flyers, 2-1, in overtime. The surface for the Lyric Little Bandbox six years ago included aluminum pans to cradle the ice, but the underlying surface then was only a double layer of plywood sheets, each ¾-inch in thickness, stretched across Fenway’s winter lawn.
Nowadays, the 34,000 square feet of plywood panels are still employed, but they are pancaked across a raised subflooring that is the first thing put in place by the installation crew. At Gillette, installers had to compensate for the severe crown of the artificial field — crucial for draining away rain during football games.
With the firm subflooring in place, propped on adjustable wood-and-steel footings to compensate for the crown, a level and firm surface stood ready for plywood sheets, then the aluminum pans, followed by the slow introduction of the 20,000 gallons of water (approximately what fills a typical in-ground swimming pool).
“It’s the solid base, when we drive our [ice] resurfacers on it,’’ said Craig, explaining the benefit of the subflooring. “There is not so much flex in the floor. So you don’t have ice cracking underneath you and you’re not trying to repair it as you’re resurfacing. At any normal hockey rink, you are on a concrete floor. We try to make the portable floor as solid as that.’’
Another key addition in the post-Fenway era, said Craig, has been what he called a “crossover’’ valve that allows him better control of where underneath the sheet he wishes the glycol to flow. If it’s a sunny day but only part of the sheet is catching the rays, he has the ability to direct glycol to that area, to chill the ice back to its ideal 22 degrees.
“We’ve learned a lot,’’ said Craig, who grew up in Alberta, where anything north of 10 degrees Farenheit is the stuff of T-shirts and flip-flops. “We continue to learn a lot.’’
Technology embedded in the surface, referred to as “Eye on the Ice,’’ constantly relays updates about the playing surface to Craig’s SmartPhone. Those cues, for such things as rising ice temperature due to sun or warm weather, can lead to the employment of the “crossover’’ valve and the targeted flow of the glycol. The process has evolved to a point that outdoor temps would have to reach into the 60s before the freezing technology was strained.
To give the ice its glistening appearance, workers brush on some 350 gallons of white paint, along with red and blue lines and logos, roughly halfway through the freezing process. An indoor rink’s surface is typically built up to a thickness of about an inch or slightly more. The Classic rink’s surface is roughly 2 inches thick, with all of the paint layered on at about the 1-inch mark.
“We are a lot better at this now,’’ said Renzulli, “than we were the first few years.’’
Game time approaches. All the pieces are in place. The outcome is now up to the hockey gods, in tandem with outside forces.
“Whatever Mother Nature throws at us,’’ said a confident Craig, “we’ll deal with it.’’