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ANN ARBOR — On a frigid afternoon, an NHL-branded hauler arrived with little fanfare and parked at the main gate of one of college football’s heralded stadiums, in preparation for one of hockey’s marquee events.
Michigan Stadium will host the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, when the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings will meet in the NHL’s New Year’s Day outdoor game. On Thursday, what’s essentially a giant refrigerator arrived in Ann Arbor to put an ice rink inside of one of football’s largest stadiums.
“This building, people don’t realize it’s as big as it is, when you walk down on the field and look up,” said Don Renzulli, the NHL’s executive vice president of events. “It’s pretty massive.”
Renzulli, former Detroit Red Wings left wing Tomas Holmstrom and Dan Craig, the NHL’s senior director of facilities operations, met with reporters outside of the stadium to explain the logistics that go into constructing an outdoor rink inside of a stadium that seats more than 109,000.
Construction of the rink at Michigan Stadium began Dec. 2, and Craig — known as the “ice guru,” as he oversees the creation and operation of NHL outdoor rinks — anticipates the first sheet of ice to be put down on Thursday. The Winter Classic hauler, he explained, is the world’s largest mobile refrigeration unit and houses ice-making and ice-monitoring equipment that’s necessary for the NHL to turn the Big House into the Big Freeze.
The NHL has held the Winter Classic at two NFL stadiums and three Major League Baseball stadiums. The process of building a rink inside each venue is the same, Craig said, with the only factor being the logistics of plumbing and making sure there’s a proper circulation of coolant between the hauler and the floor beneath the rink.
Once the ice is put atop a platform that’s been constructed at Michigan Stadium, Craig will monitor the ice around the clock, both on site and through an app on his mobile phone. Craig said each site comes with some tinkering, and one element is out of the control of he and his staff.
“Next Thursday it’s supposed to be in the mid-30s, not in the teens or in single digits as it is now,” said Craig, who has overseen rink construction in the United States, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom. “If it’s going to be a warm day, we won’t even work during the day. We’ll work at night. Those are the things you have to deal with, with the crews that put in the ice.”
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Renzulli said plates for the rink will be placed next week, then boards and glass will be constructed before ice is made and put down. In addition, Renzulli said 107,000 Winter Classic seat cushions will be placed on the bleachers inside the stadium for fans to take home.
“We were supposed to be here last year, but we had a little issue,” Renzulli said, referring to the NHL lockout that shortened the 2012-2013 season and postponed the 2013 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium. “We’re back, so it’s given us more time to plan. It’s probably a little bit more stressful because we’re doing a number of games and not just one. But I think everyone’s up for the challenge.”
The Winter Classic is one of six outdoor games that the NHL will host this season; New York’s Yankee Stadium will host two games, and Chicago’s Soldier Field, Vancouver’s BC Place (which has a retractable roof), and Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium will each host single games.
Following the Winter Classic, the NHL will pack up the rink at Michigan Stadium and head to Southern California to convert Dodger Stadium for the Jan. 25 outdoor tilt between the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks.
“We’re going to be making ice in L.A.,” Craig said. “It’s not ‘if.’ We are.”
Some have raised the argument that the pizzazz of the outdoor hockey game is disappearing, as the trend of playing inside of a major or minor-league venue has proliferated within the last five years.
In addition to being one of six outdoor NHL games this season, there will be 18 outdoor NCAA hockey games, including this weekend’s Frozen Frontier at Frontier Field in Rochester, N.Y. The American Hockey League will hold two outdoor games this season, and Fifth Third Field will host the Toledo Walleye Winterfest in December of 2014, which will include the ECHL’s first outdoor hockey game on Dec. 27, 2014.
But Holmstrom, who will play in the Red Wings-Maple Leafs Alumni Game on Dec. 31 at Comerica Park in Detroit, believes the lure of the outdoors harkens back to a simpler time.
“My kids love to see the outdoor hockey games, especially when it’s snowing and you cannot see the puck,” said Holmstrom, who played in the 2009 Winter Classic between the Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks at Wrigley Field in Chicago. “I think it makes the kids want to go out and do it too. Instead of sitting inside and playing video games, they think, ‘OK, I want to go out and try that, too.’ ”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.