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NHL ice guru ready to transform Wrigley
By Mike Spellman | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 12/14/2008 12:00 AM

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While those nursing hangovers last Jan. 1 probably got over them in a few hours or a few days, Dan Craig's New Year's recovery lasted a month-and-a-half.

And he wasn't even drinking.

You see, the NHL's facilities/operations manager - the league's ice guru, if you will - was recovering from a bumpy month at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, where he was in charge of setting up and maintaining the outdoor ice rink for the 2008 New Year's Day game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Buffalo Sabres.

"It took me a good six weeks to get back into what I'd call a normal run of things," said Craig, a native of Jasper, Alberta. "Last year was a really tough one on me physically because we were working with outside contractors, working in a pressure situation. I was working with people I didn't know personally, didn't know professionally.

"My thing is we're going to do everything in our power so that nothing on the facility side affects the outcome of a game, and that's where I put pressure on myself to make sure of it."

Even if it means surviving on little or no sleep.

"It was basically working around the clock for (the last) six days," the 53-year-old said.

Well, expect a better rested and slightly peppier guru when the Blackhawks host the Detroit Red Wings in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day at Wrigley Field, because things figure to go a lot smoother this time around, provided the weather cooperates.

Not only does the recently renovated field provide a flat surface to work on, unlike the 9-inch crown he had to contend with in Buffalo, but more crucial to Craig is that he will be installing his state-of-the art ice surface with the help of an experienced crew of 10 that he knows and trusts.

"I think this one, because of the way we have it set up and the crew we have, it won't take long to get back on the ground and feel back to normal," said Craig, who has already scouted Wrigley a half-dozen times in preparation for the big day. "I feel really good about the crew. They were handpicked for a reason - I know them, I trust them."

His bosses at the NHL offices feel the same about Craig, who spent 10 years working for the Edmonton Oilers, producing an ice surface at the Coliseum widely regarded as one of the best - if not the best - in the league.

In the ensuing years since going to work for the NHL in 1997 and overseeing facilities throughout the league, the iceman has set up rinks in Europe and Japan as well as at outdoor venues in North America, including Edmonton, Buffalo and Michigan State University.

It has become a part of the job he never could have envisioned when he was interviewing for the NHL gig.

"Not even close, not even close," he said. "From the time I was hired, the job itself has just grown into its own. It's one of those things where people ask you what the possibilities are, and you start kicking around ideas and make it work."

The trucks carrying all the equipment for the next Winter Classic are scheduled to arrive in Chicago this week. A crew of a couple dozen will unload and assemble the boards for a couple of days, clearing the way for Craig and Company to build 1 to 11/2 inches of ice before a short Christmas break. When they return, if everything goes according to plan, all that will be left to do is spruce things up and paint the ice. Even with a warmer-than-normal Christmas Day forecast, the refrigeration system can get the job done.

"It's awesome," he said. "You know that it's coming and you try to prepare yourself for it, but then when everyone gets there, it's an unbelievable feeling to see so many people enjoying such a great event."

But Craig realizes there's no celebrating until he gets that ice just right, which can be a tricky proposition.

"Natural ice freezes from the top down. Artificial ice freezes from the bottom up," he said. "We want to make sure that you can't have the top freeze before the bottom freezes."

That means all Weather Channel, all the time.

"Very much so," Craig said. "I flip back to it every hour to watch what the systems are doing. The big thing last year was we had four or five systems all packed up coming right off the West Coast and they had the same (jet)stream coming right in to Buffalo. They'd dip down to Toronto then come back up.

"What I have to watch in Chicago is if we get a pressure system coming out of the north, how is that going to affect us compared to a system coming out of the west?"

Sounds like someone's angling for a job as a meteorologist.

"I wouldn't say that," Craig said with a laugh, "but I read the systems pretty well."

And he knows just what kind of system he'd like to have hovering over the North Side come Jan. 1 for the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.

"Mid-20s (temperature) would be ideal," he said. "That would be a really nice day. And if we had a snowfall the night before to make everything nice and white - that would be perfect."