It’s hard to believe what happened in between.
Thanks to rain and temperatures as high as 69 degrees Fahrenheit, the top layers of ice, half the white paint and all the lines and logos were gone Saturday.
“We had two inches of water,” said NHL senior manager of facility operations Derek King, the leader of the ice crew. “It was like a wading pool.”
Yet the ice is scheduled to be ready for the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators to practice Tuesday and play Wednesday (2 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS), a testament to the ice crew.
“I don’t think there’s ever been an outdoor game that has gone just completely perfectly,” said NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer, who oversees the events. “Weather will always be a factor, always, and something’s not going to go according to plan.
“And the fact that everybody just kind of takes it in stride, doesn’t stress, puts on a happy face, figures it out, is what makes this team a really strong team.”
King originally planned to have the ice ready the morning of Dec. 30, providing a buffer in case of bad weather. With rain and warm temperatures in the forecast, he moved up the schedule.
Crewmen painted the ice white Dec. 24 and laid the lines and logos Dec. 26, sealing them with layers of ice on overnight shifts when it was dark and cold. A typical NHL ice sheet is 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches thick. The goal here was 2 to 2 1/2 inches, so water could be removed instead of added if necessary.
When the crewmen came to build the ice Friday night, they faced warm temperatures, high humidity and wind. The ice was frozen where it met the aluminum floor, which transfers heat to the glycol pumped by the refrigeration truck outside. But it was melting from the top down.
All night into Saturday morning, they removed water while the refrigeration truck cranked 100 percent. They started to lose the white paint, they started to lose the lines and logos.
“And then the rain started, and just with how warm it was, the truck running, it got to the point where we now know we’re going to lose everything,” King said. “And then it just got worse throughout the day.”
By 3 p.m., they had removed the lines and logos, which are fabric, not painted, and could be washed, dried and reinstalled.
At 3:30 p.m., it poured.
“That last rain was a killer,” King said.
There was so much melted ice that the crewmen removed end boards so they had another opening through which to push water off the surface. They could not simply leave the water on the surface to refreeze it, because that would melt the ice underneath and threaten the entire sheet.
They made a plan for what to do after the rain stopped, breaking it down into four-hour windows, and got Cody Bateman, a crewmen who works for the Stars at American Airlines Center, to find more white paint.
At 5 p.m., the rain stopped. They had lost about 3/4 of an inch of ice, the equivalent of three days of work — three days that included an overnight shift of Christmas Eve into Christmas morning for part of the crew.
“It was so deflating because there’s nothing you can do,” King said. “We couldn’t bring another truck in. That wouldn’t have helped. The guys were working as hard as they could. The truck was working as hard as it could. Just Mother Nature had other plans for us.”
At 5:15 p.m., they started building ice again.
They restarted the painstaking process of spraying a fine mist of water, letting it freeze and doing it over and over again, thin layer by thin layer, to create the dense, hard sheet needed for an NHL game.
First, they sealed the white paint they had left. Then, they painted the rest of the ice white from 10 p.m. to midnight and sealed that until 8 a.m. Sunday.
They reinstalled the lines and logos from about 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday, then started yet another overnight shift to seal those. That will be the layer of ice on which the players will skate. The crewmen be working around the clock until practice time Tuesday.
“We’ll be ready to skate if everything stays the way it is,” King said.
The forecast calls for highs between 54-57 degrees Fahrenheit and lows between 35-47 over the next three days.
“It looks good,” King said. “The evenings are cooler. There is some wind. As long as it’s a cold wind, we’re good.”
This will be the NHL’s 29th outdoor game since 2003, and this is one of many obstacles the League has faced.
Jeff Fletcher, a crewman working his 21st outdoor game, said this is not the worst he has seen, though it’s up there. Before the 2016 Winter Classic in Foxborough, Massachusetts, it snowed and then rained, creating a translucent slush about 2 inches thick. You couldn’t see the logos. The crewmen had to scrape it out by hand.
“That was the worst day,” Fletcher said.
Before the 2009 Winter Classic in Chicago, the temps swung wildly, causing the ice to crack badly.
“I just know it was significant and a bit of a scramble for us leading into game day,” NHL executive vice president of events Dean Matsuzaki said.
It was so cold before the 2011 Heritage Classic in Calgary, Alberta, that the NHL needed to keep the ice warm, so it went to construction sites and got blankets used to keep concrete warm during curing. Resurfacing was done by hand because the machines were too heavy, and the League now uses insulated blankets and smaller, lighter resurfacing machines.
The night before the 2017 Stadium Series game in Pittsburgh, Mayer received a call that the lead singer of One Republic had laryngitis and could not perform. He worked the phones and got Train on a plane in the morning, even though that band’s lead singer was on vacation in the Bahamas.
“Yeah, there was a moment of, ‘Oh, no,'” Mayer said. “But we recovered. We figured out how to get a replacement.”
Before the 2018 Stadium Series in Annapolis, Maryland, high winds forced the NHL to remove everything that wasn’t wind-resistant, from the glass atop the boards to the NBC rink side studio. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals had to practice indoors.
“Everybody worked all day long putting everything back up, and we got it done in time,” Mayer said.
Before the 2019 Winter Classic in South Bend, Indiana, the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks had to practice indoors because of rain. Before the 2019 Stadium Series in Philadelphia, the ice crew had to order a second refrigeration truck from Toronto because the first one wouldn’t start.
The show has always gone on. It will again.
“Yeah, it’s a setback,” Mayer said. “But it’s not going to get in the way of what we ultimately want to do, and that’s to have great ice for our game.”