Dodger Stadium in mid-January is peaceful after sundown. The distinctive scoreboard is barely visible through the twilight, the air is cool, and the quiet is almost a presence itself.
“We’ve heard coyotes howling late at night,” Dan Craig says.
A ballpark at rest is a pleasant place to be … except this one isn’t slumbering. It has an NHL-size hockey rink set in the infield, a beach volleyball court in left field, a small pond in right field, an in-line/street hockey area, and two performance stages waiting to be completed.
All of this activity is for the Stadium Series game to be played between the Kings and Ducks on Saturday, the first NHL regular-season outdoor game in the U.S. west of the Rocky Mountains. Puck drop is scheduled for about 7:15 p.m., and Craig has been working the graveyard shift at Dodger Stadium every night the past week to make and maintain the ice for an event that, on first consideration, seems impossible.
Outdoor hockey in Southern California?
It’s not a stunt. From a technical standpoint, it’s possible because of advances in refrigeration techniques. From an emotional standpoint, it’s driven by Craig’s determination to make this safe and fun for players and spectators while respecting the game, his passion since he first tended to the ice on rinks in the Canadian towns of Bonnyville and Jasper.
“That’s where I grew up and that’s where the love of the game started and here we are,” he said.
“Here” being Los Angeles, with palm trees and above-average daytime temperatures that fade to cool nights for him and a crew, whose mechanic, Rob Block, is a buddy from high school.
“I’ve talked to a couple of guys and said, ‘Have you guys quit pinching each other yet that you’re really here doing this?’” said Craig, whose official title is senior director of facilities operations for the NHL but who is better known as the ice-making guru.
Before the game was scheduled, Craig studied 15 years’ worth of local weather patterns for this time of year, as he did for such previous cold-weather sites as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. He found the average daytime temperature was 62 to 66 degrees. It has been about 20 degrees warmer than that this week and is expected to reach 80 during the day on Saturday.
But the game won’t be played during the day, when the ice is protected from the sun’s damage by an insulated, heat-reflecting Mylar blanket. There’s no rain in the forecast, and low humidity will be better than high humidity would be. So far, Craig said, the refrigeration system housed in a huge truck parked beyond the center-field fence has performed ideally.
“We’ve been good. It’s handled it. The truck has handled it,” he said. “The sun has gone down and it’s totally off the ice by 4 o’clock.”
The ice began taking shape late last week and has since been painted with regulation markings and the Stadium Series logo. Using a sprinkler-like device with many nozzles, Craig and his crew of eight have repeatedly sprayed the ice to reach an eventual thickness of 11/2 to 13/4 inches. They groom and retouch it like artists adding flourishes to a masterpiece. An inch of ice requires 10,600 gallons of water, and they use a standard local water source.
“The thing is right now there’s no breeze, and for us, when we’re outdoors, wind really creates some issues,” he said one night earlier this week. “If we have a nice quiet night and it cools down it’s going to be a great day for hockey.”
With the ice covered during the day, Craig and his crew have been working mostly between 4 p.m. and 4 a.m., when temperatures fall below the 60-to-64-degree range that’s maintained inside NHL arenas. He said the biggest problem he had faced was a few hours’ stress over a missing part for a pump on the refrigeration system. The part was “air-freighted” in and the system was assembled without a hitch.
The weather, though unusually warm during the day, hasn’t presented him with any insurmountable obstacles.
“We know when the sun goes down we are going to be in the 50s,” he said. “So as long as I can be at that 55-degree mark or lower when we drop the puck we’ll be in awesome shape.”
The boards, benches, glass and other parts of the rink setup were trucked in from the Winter Classic, which was played Jan. 1 in a snowstorm at Ann Arbor, Mich. There’s a cutout behind the players’ benches for heaters. Those won’t be needed Saturday.
The technology has existed for several years to make this happen but the NHL, preferring the snow-globe atmosphere of cold-weather sites, resisted playing in a warm climate. Finally, in a season that includes six outdoor games, the NHL decided to stage its take on hockey, Southern California style.
The heart of the operation lies in the 53-foot truck that houses the pumps and refrigeration equipment. Its twin is in New York for outdoor games at Yankee Stadium on Sunday and next Wednesday.
Pipes from the truck will circulate the coolant glycol at the rate of 1,000 gallons a minute through ice pans set up beneath the ice. The glycol is recirculated through the system in the truck. The goal is to keep the ice temperature at 22 degrees.
Sensors constantly monitor the temperatures of the supply and return pipes. Craig has an “app” on his mobile phone that monitors the system — as well as the air temperature and dew point — and will sound an alarm at the slightest fluctuation. He falls asleep with the phone on his chest, set to vibrate, so it won’t wake his wife.
The principles of the refrigeration system, he said, “are the same as your fridge at home, but on a bigger magnitude.”
For Craig, the reward isn’t doing something that seems impossible; it’s making the impossible look ordinary. He will get his first reviews on Friday, when the Kings and Ducks practice on the outdoor ice.
“The satisfaction for me will be when the guys skate out there,” he said. “Nobody has to tell me. I’ll know well ahead of them what they’re going to feel, and I’ll know from how I see them skate and how I see their eyes and the expression on their face. When you get guys from 19 to 39 just grinning from ear to ear and loving being out there, that’s what we do.”