Commentary

This time around, Classic a family affair for NHL's ice guru

Updated: December 30, 2008, 9:09 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- No one sets out to become the world's most famous ice maker, but that's just what Dan Craig has become. And maybe that, in and of itself, would be enough.

Craig, who began working at the local arena in the resort town of Jasper, Alberta, while still in high school, has put down ice for Stanley Cup champions and Olympic gold medalists. He's created NHL playing surfaces where there were only patches of dirt and bare slabs of concrete in Japan, Italy and London, and he's conjured up surfaces so NHLers can play outdoors in Buffalo and Edmonton.

Now, as he builds his latest rink here at Wrigley Field, he has had the rare pleasure of working with his son, Mike, at his side.

"To me, it's fabulous," said Craig, who is now in full outdoor mode with what looks to be a week's worth of stubble on his face.

They are father and son, friends and work colleagues, working against time and the elements to put on an event that will be seen live by more than 41,000 people at Wrigley and by millions on television on Jan. 1.

Pressure? Maybe a little.

"[Mike] sees different things than I see and that's what you rely on," Craig said in an interview Tuesday. "He knows what to look for. He understands the game."

[+] EnlargeDan Craig
Ross Dettman for ESPN.comMike, left, and Dan Craig stand on the rink the helped build, smack in the middle of Wrigley Field.

Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough figures there couldn't be a better person in charge of the ice for the Winter Classic.

"He's like Quint, the captain in 'Jaws,'" McDonough said, referencing Robert Shaw's classic turn as the crusty, unshaven captain of the ill-fated Orca in the movie.

While Craig's face tells one of the stories of the NHL's ongoing efforts to reach a broader audience, he is a man who is very much in tune with his roots and, not unlike the hockey teams that will skate onto his ice in about 48 hours, believes in the team concept.

First, there is his son.

Mike Craig grew up in a hockey house, playing the game, but also watching his father build the ice for the Edmonton Oilers, a team that for years boasted the best surface in the NHL.

"I loved hockey. I loved being in a rink. It was sort of a natural fit," Mike said.

He went to college and took courses on facilities management and has become something of an ice builder himself. He's helped put in ice in Kelowna, British Columbia, where there is a major junior hockey team and Canada's Olympic team held its orientation camp in 2005.

He's helped his dad in Japan, where the NHL opened the 2000 season, in Italy at the 2006 Olympics and at the Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003. During the 2006 playoffs, father and son worked alongside each other as Mike took a job with the Oilers, building the ice his father used to work on, while Dan returned to his old stomping grounds as the NHL's ice master as the Oilers marched to the Stanley Cup finals.

Mike is currently in charge of the recreational programs at Okanagan College in Kelowna, but jumped at the chance to join his father in Chicago for the NHL's second straight outdoor venture, this in spite of the birth of his second daughter, Ashlyn, on Dec. 5.

Craig's team is working 16 hours a day, down from the 23 to 24 it worked last season in Buffalo, but it's no walk in the park.

"Still, you try and take a few minutes and appreciate where you are and take it all in," Mike said.

His father laughed at the notion of "taking it in." He recalled the Canadian gold-medal win in the 2002 Olympics -- a game that featured the now-famous lucky Canadian one-dollar coin that somehow ended up buried under center ice -- and how he didn't see a tape of the game for more than a year.

"You try and take your moments, but there's not as many as what you'd want there to be," Craig said.

There are others working to build the ice in Chicago besides the father and son.

Dan Craig handpicked the 10-man team to get the job done, including his old high school buddy, Rob Block. There are ice makers from around the continent here to make sure, at the end of the day, the game is the story, not the ice on which it is played.

At 10:15 Tuesday morning, following a tradition established in Buffalo, Craig and his crew were the first to test the ice.

But instead of following Craig onto the ice, the 10 men positioned themselves along the boards and, at Craig's count, jumped onto the ice together to savor the moment.

It was, said Craig, "an honor" to share the moment with his crew.

As for the ice, Craig took advantage of a skatearound by about 65 media and staff to see how the surface responded to some early wear and tear.

He noticed some bleeding of one blue line in an area that caught some direct sunlight and took note of the snow buildup in the more shaded areas near the penalty boxes.

"My feet were telling me one thing; my eyes were telling me another thing," Craig said.

What was the final message?

"You better put on your seat belts because we are going to put on a show," Craig predicted.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.