When you meet Dan Craig, the man responsible for constructing and maintaining the rink going on the infield of Fenway Park, you realize that being the facility operations manager for the NHL isn’t just a job for him.
In fact, when talking with him about ice and hockey rinks, one has to wonder if it ever feels like work for this passionate fellow from the humble little town of Jasper, Alberta. That’s why it’s impossible not to like him and trust that unless it rains, the 2010 Bridgestone Winter Classic at Fenway Park on New Year’s Day is going to be the best one yet.
“You know, you come from Jasper, a town of 5,000, and you just kind of go like, it's mind-boggling,” Craig said of how far he and the Winter Classic have come and the fact he was addressing a media scrum in the oldest and most beloved ball park in the world.
“Yes it's my third and truly it's my fourth outdoor game," said Craig, who built the rink for the Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003 as well. "When I talk to my mom she just says 'look at where your career has taken you.' You got to pinch yourself and say 'yeah, I'm doing this for the best game in the world.' That's why we're here. You put your guys together, you put the rink together and you do it for the fans, for the game of hockey. That's why we have our jobs.”
But this isn’t a job for Craig. This is a lifelong passion that he turned into a career. No matter when he has to punch in and punch out every day, he is grateful and happy to be doing this.
“It’s a passion,” he proudly acknowledged. “When you watch hockey, you’re watching the players and the flow of game. When I watch hockey, I watch the skates on the ice. I watch how the ice goes, how much snow accumulation there is.”
Craig watches over the ice in all 30 NHL arenas and as he points out, the ice he examines on a regular basis across the league is the best of the best.
“Bad ice just doesn’t exist any more in the National Hockey League,” he said. “We rate all 30 rinks. My bottom rink is where our No. 1 used to be.”
That’s why he takes so much pride in his job when building the outdoor rinks for the annual outdoor NHL event. He treats the task with a delicate patience and caring approach.
“Patience is the No. 1 thing on our list,” Craig said. “We don’t go out there and lay down a thousand gallons of water and go get a coffee. The guys will be out there on the hoses for 16 hours — fine sprays for 16 hours on a given day.”
Craig does this because he has learned the hard way that sometimes the final product isn’t always a final product. Sometimes what appears to be a masterpiece can be only the beginning and Mother Nature always has the final say.
“I have been building outdoor rinks in my backyard for quite a few years and you know when it's time to go out there and make ice you make ice,” Craig said. “I remember the one year and it wasn't that long ago, I made what I thought was an absolutely fabulous little rink. I worked on that rink for three weeks and it was pristine. All of the sudden, its 34-35 degrees out and all we could do is sit by the fire and look at the rink because we couldn't skate on it. So, whatever Mother Nature gives you, you roll with it.”
That’s exactly what he plans to do with the Fenway rink and he has no problem if he needs to work overtime to make this rink the best one yet.
“It's one of those things where you know that everything has to be the best,” Craig said. "Second best doesn't work. You're at peace with yourself and you know what you're doing is right. There is lots of time to sleep later. It's one of those things you ingrain in your mind and you ingrain in your staff. When I tell the guys the shift begins at four o'clock in the morning, no one blinks — they are there at four o'clock in the morning and there's the hose and you start working.”
When he arrived at Fenway Park Thursday afternoon with cameras and reporters scrambling around him, Craig said he had one of those surreal moments. One of those moments that grab you and tell you: ‘this is where I want to be.’
Craig and his crew will do this job right because he realizes this is his destiny and he wants to return the favor to all those that helped him reach this point and realize his dreams.
“That was bizarre,” Craig said of the grand reception. “It was one of those things, and that's why I said it, at that particular moment I looked out there and I had a good friend of mine that I played hockey with that just passed away two weeks ago and that's the number one thing I thought of. You know, you've come a long ways. You've come a long ways out of the mountains and now to this: downtown Boston — wow."
NESN.com's James Murphy will be answering one Winter Classic question every day in December.
Saturday, Dec. 12: What was the Cold War Game?
Monday, Dec. 14: Why will this Winter Classic be better than any of the previous ones?