ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - It's December in Buffalo: Just how hard could it be to make ice outdoors?
Considering the equipment NHL ice-making specialist Dan Craig brought with him this week - dozens of rolls of plastic pipe, near-endless gallons of coolant and two 360-tonne refrigeration units - it appears more difficult than might be expected.
Craig must build a four-centimetre, smooth-as-glass surface that will hold up to rain, above-freezing temperatures, and be fit for Sidney Crosby and Company to play upon Tuesday when the Sabres host the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL Winter Classic outdoor game.
This is no typical regular and rutty backyard rink Craig is building at Ralph Wilson Stadium. He's preparing for what will be the league's second outdoor game, first in the United States.
"On the engineering side, it's a lot different," Craig said Thursday. "When I put a rink in my backyard, Mother Nature helps me or she takes it away. Here, I can make it and I can keep it."
Evidence of that occurred Thursday when the first thin layer of ice was created despite a persistent drizzle, with temperatures around 3 C. The rain actually helped the ice-making process because it lessened the amount of water Craig had to pour on the rink's surface, which was already cooled to minus-7 C.
"It doesn't matter how I get that water down there," Craig said. "We call it, 'God helping us make ice today,' because as quick as it was falling, we were freezing it."
It's a complex process that requires both precision and patience.
The temporary rink, with boards in place, was built above the field, sitting atop an intricate series of plastic pipes - or ice mats, as they're called - that run across the width of the ice sheet. Sand was then poured onto the pipes to hold them in place and to create a level surface.
The combination of running coolant through the pipes and pouring water on the sand created a frozen concrete-like mixture that provides an ideal base for making ice.
Crews will now spend the night spraying the surface to build a two centimetre-thick sheet, which will then be ready to be painted. Craig expects by Friday afternoon to have the entire surface painted white and the centre-ice logo in place.
The red and blue lines, face-off circles and goal-crease areas will also be painted in.
Once that's completed, another centimetre of ice will be built to meet NHL standards, and crews will use Zambonis to keep the sheet smooth and level in preparation for Monday, when both teams are scheduled to practice outdoors.
"As we see it right now, we're moving along very smoothly," Craig said. "Definitely, we're right there, right exactly where we need to be."
The NHL has played outdoors once before at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 22, 2003, when the Oilers hosted the Montreal Canadiens.
The Sabres have already expressed interest in hosting another outdoor game based on the initial reaction they've received in preparing for this one.
The 42,000 tickets made available to fans were purchased within a half-hour after they went on sale in September. The remaining 30,000 tickets set aside for season-ticket holders and the NHL have also been sold.
Craig is working nearly round the clock in taking every precaution to make sure next week's game is a success. He noted NHL arenas are equipped with only one 360-tonne refrigeration unit, while he brought two.
Mother Nature is also co-operating, with the initial game-day forecast calling for minus-1 C and flurries. That's better than playing indoors, where arenas are kept at 17 C.
"We'll be able to make ice that's almost too hard," he said.
Craig was so confident in the ice's consistency that he considered giving it a test later in the day.
"Give me another three hours of flood time out there, and I'd probably put my skates on and go for a twirl myself," Craig said.