Making Coors hockey-ready a big challenge

Conversion for Feb. 27 NHL game underway

Making Coors hockey-ready a big challenge

DENVER -- The nice days in Denver mean overnights for Mike Craig, the National Hockey League's senior manager of facilities operations.

Craig is in charge of the conversion of Coors Field from the baseball home of the Rockies into a hockey rink for the Feb. 27 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche, as well as other associated events such as the Wings-Avs alumni game the previous evening and the Division 1 collegiate rivalry between Colorado College and the University of Denver on Feb. 20.

Coors Field to host NHL game

Those who see the constantly snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains might not be aware, but this is one mild climate. When it's in the upper 50s, 60s and 70s between now and the hockey events, one has to make other plans to build ice.

"It's nice to work in; the only thing that changes is how we're going to make the ice," Craig said in a gathering with local media. "The long-term forecast for the next two weeks is very similar. We've adjusted our schedules with our crews to make the ice at night time. While it's nice out, we have thermo-insulated parts that we put down, so we basically just try to be patient during the day.

"Once the sun goes behind the stadium and it gets chilly, we'll pull those back and we'll probably go from 4 o'clock in the morning all the way through the night, and I think the sun comes back out about 9 in the morning."

Work could be different for his father, Dan Craig, NHL senior director of facilities operations, who is overseeing the ice-building operation at TCF Bank Stadium in frigid Minneapolis. The Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild will play on Feb. 21 -- a day after a Minnesota North Stars/Wild vs. Blackhawks alumni game.

Mike Craig and the 200 or so workers trying to pull off big-time hockey outdoors in Denver are much like pitchers for the Rockies and opponents who have to work in this high-desert climate. They're playing a game of adjustments.

For example:

• Dry ice may be good for packing meats, but skating on it would, um, be a problem. If baseballs dry out so dramatically in this high-desert climate that the Rockies have to keep them in a humidor, the atmosphere could play havoc with ice. But Craig and his crew can handle it.

Coors Field to host Red Wings

The NHL has been in Colorado for a long time -- 1976-77 to '81-82 with the old Colorado Rockies (who became the New Jersey Devils), and since '95-96 with the Avalanche. The league has also been operating in Arizona with the Coyotes since '96-97. That means the league has experience making sure those arenas have ice as good as a place like Edmonton. Some of that experience will be taken outdoors.

Besides, if they could put down ice without a hitch at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 2014, they can make the necessary changes in the formula for Coors.

"We have some NHL buildings that work in very dry climates, and we do some different things to condition the ice a little differently," Craig said. "When we monitor the ice, we look at the temperature of the ice surface, the temperature of the air, the humidity. When you're off one place or another, there are different things you can do to compensate."

• The time of the puck drop is no small matter.

The rink at Coors is just above the pitcher's mound and runs sideways, with center ice around second base and the goals to the outfield side of first and third -- for the best view for the most fans. Those familiar with baseball at Coors can recall that action at around 5 p.m. in the spring and summer can be difficult for first basemen, who are often looking into a sun that has set on the third-base side and burns straight into their eyes.

The NHL wasn't about to subject a goalie to having to battle the sun while stopping a puck slapped with malice. So the alumni game is at 5 p.m. -- just fine in February -- and the Wings-Avs regular-season game will start at 6.

"When you look at the weather history in Denver, there are basically over 300 days of sunshine a year," Craig said. "So that was a big consideration."

• The start time after sunset also allows for the best possible weather conditions for the ice.

"Ideally, if we're a little bit above freezing -- it will be a night-time game -- about 40 degrees, but we've also dealt with everything in between," Craig said. "If it's a little bit above [freezing] we have control of the ice surface, but it's also good for the fans. We want it to be a good experience for them, as well."

Other facts

Rinks in outdoor stadiums are built on a stage set eight feet above ground to give the crew a chance to make the ice level. But one aspect can be odd for players. "Because there is that gap of air underneath, it does sound a little bit different," Craig said. ... The crew will begin pouring water Saturday, and by next Friday the rink will be ready for DU-CC practices. They'll begin removing the rink March 1 and be finished by March 4. ... There will be a smaller rink for children built on the Coors outfield. ... Crews have installed a monitoring system called "Eye on Ice" into the ice. If there are any problems, a signal is sent to the cellphones of Craig and other supervisors.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and like his Facebook page. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.