CALGARY - Dan Craig is promising fast ice for the Heritage Classic—if the favourable weather forecast holds.
The NHL's chief icemaker is rubbing his hands together in glee at the long-term outlook that calls for clear skies and a high of -5 C on Feb. 20, when the Calgary Flames host the Montreal Canadiens at McMahon Stadium in the second outdoor NHL game played in Canada.
"It's going to be a very fast sheet of ice," Craig said Monday during a conference call. "If I was going to pick an ideal temperature for us to have our game in it would be minus five, minus six."
The Edmonton Oilers hosted the Habs in a frigid first Heritage Classic in 2003. Minus 23 conditions prompted Montreal goaltender Jose Theodore to pull a tuque over his helmet.
Calgary's winter climate is a mixed bag of conditions with warm chinook winds capable of swinging the thermometer 20 degrees in less than 24 hours. As an example, Friday's 10-degree temperatures gave way to minus 13 and a snowstorm overnight Sunday.
Rain and the mercury at 11 degrees made for a soggy Winter Classic in Pittsburgh on Jan. 1. Given southern Alberta's arid climate, it's unlikely Craig will have to deal with wet conditions in Calgary.
No precipitation is predicted after Feb. 15, which would be a relief to McMahon Stadium workers clearing the stands Monday for the third time since Dec. 1.
"You pretty much have to keep at it," McMahon manager John Haverstock said. "If you leave it and you can get the wrong weather, you get ice buildup and it's absolutely unmanageable."
Craig's refrigeration truck arrives in Calgary on Wednesday from a cross-Canada tour. Installation of the ice begins Thursday.
Temporary seats have been constructed at McMahon to bring capacity up to about 42,000. The merchandise tent and other storage facilities have already been erected and what is basically a giant sandbox has been laid at the field level.
Craig, from Jasper, Alta., is opting for a sand foundation under the plywood base instead of the Styrofoam he's used in the more humid climates of the northeastern United States.
"The unpredictability of the weather there, we just thought it would be better for us to put down sand and moisturize it," Craig explained. "That ground is very frozen, very solid.
"We thought that would be an easier way to go than putting down our Styrofoam deck."
He's going to run a heat line to the ice surface in the event the temperature plummets because he doesn't want the ice breaking up under the players' skates.
"If it does get into the minus 15, minus 18, minus 20, the heater does kick in so the lower end of the ice doesn't get to brittle or too dehydrated, so that we're able to maintain an NHL-calibre surface," he explained.
"We want to make sure our NHL players are safe and we have the best game possible because they are regular-season games."
Not since the 1988 Winter Olympics has McMahon held a February event. That was also the last time an ice surface was installed on the field.
McMahon was the site of the frigid opening ceremonies Feb. 13 and the closing Feb. 28, when the mercury hit a high of 9 C.
After installing ice at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Heinz Field, and in a swimming pool with a diving board at one end in Japan for the 1998 Olympics, Craig feels he's seen it all when it comes to making ice.
But he's not so complacent that he doesn't study the weather forecast. When asked, Craig rattles off the predicted temperature for each day heading into the Heritage Classic.
"Yes, I watch the long-term forecast quite closely," he said. "It's not just icemaking, but handling the crews and making sure our personnel are safe and secure whatever weather we're going to have to work through."