Mike Craig grew up wandering the halls of the old Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, running into Oilers with legendary names like Gretzky and Messier, following around his father, known to many as “The Ice Man.”
A hopeful youth hockey player himself, Mike understood the basic tasks asked of Dan Craig, the responsibility inherent with freezing rinks at NHL arenas, because each winter he saw it happen in their Alberta back yard. But it wasn’t until years later, when the two worlds merged and a family business was born, that he truly understood the operational depth involved with making ice.
“You get hooked on it,” Mike said.
It was a Thursday in December, exactly two weeks until the Washington Capitals host the Chicago Blackhawks, the latest outdoor hockey game that, on a much smaller scale, had become a father-son event, too.
The dozen or so members of the crew were right on schedule again, another Winter Classic charging toward them. The refrigeration trailer had been set up at Nationals Park, the piping running to the rink’s foundation, penciled across the diamond and into the outfield. They had almost finished setting the ice pans, used for temperature control, and had kept close watch over the coming forecasts, but they still needed to fill the system with coolant, install the dasher boards that frame the rink, pump water onto the sheets and watch it freeze.
Speaking on the phone from Southeast Washington, Mike recalled a career path that, upon further reflection, seemed almost predestined to follow his father, officially the NHL’s senior director of facility operations, unofficially the most famous ice maker in the world.
Mike played college hockey in Calgary at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and studied recreation operations. Engineering, facility management, refrigeration, that sort of thing. Fresh out of school, he took a job at a smaller rink in Kelowna, across the provincial border in British Columbia.
Around the same time, in the late 1990s, Dan was busy working for the NHL, having been lured away from Edmonton. The league was planning overseas games in Japan, so Mike latched onto the special events crew. Then he worked for the Oilers, moved back to Kelowna and started an arena consulting business, which received contracts to set up every NHL outdoor game except the first Winter Classic in Buffalo, until the league hired him last season.
“I definitely wanted to be in the same industry,” Mike said. “Being in the rinks and working the games and being a former hockey player at that point, it was a great way to be back at the rink, be around hockey and be involved still. Following in the footsteps, though, it wasn’t until a couple years ago that I wanted to try to make that step.”
The increasing popularity of outdoor games sometimes breaks them up, like last season when both worked the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., then split apart for the four Stadium Series games and one Heritage Classic. Dan took his crew to Los Angeles and Chicago. Mike’s went to New York and Vancouver.
“Now we’re back together,” Mike said, “filling whatever role he needs me to.”
Dan grew up in Jasper, a small town in Alberta, and froze his first rink at 15 years old. He dabbled in youth hockey — “Did I play? Yes. Was I good? No.” — but always enjoyed watching others skate on the ice he made.
Before long, he was building rinks both professionally and behind the family house, where his wife would often peek outside at 2 a.m. and ask when he planned to sleep. “It’s nice out,” Dan would reply. “I’ll be in around 4.”
Planning the Winter Classic consumes roughly half his daily routine, Dan said, spending the other hours on monitoring ice conditions at all 30 rinks across the NHL through an application called “Eye on the Ice” that records temperatures through probes and beeps warnings to his cellphone. But he likes the outdoor events most because they give him hands-on control of a crew assembled specifically for this task.
He gathered pipe fitters, plumbers, young up-and-comers still learning the craft and right-hand men, of which he counted at least four. He insists upon creativity and quick thinking. For instance, when rain blanketed one rink, someone on his crew rejiggered a Zamboni to suck up water rather than spit it on to the ice.
“It’s like building an all-star team,” Dan said. “Everybody has their role.”
That role also means accepting a certain degree of sacrifice, like spending Christmases in whichever city hosts the next Winter Classic. But it also comes with tradition, the kinds forged over long hours, often late at night, waiting for that nerve-wracking day when the ice is finally ready.
When that time comes, Dan, Mike and their crew members always follow the same routine. Together, they lace up their skates and sit on the edge of the boards. They count to three and hop onto the ice, all at the same time. “So no one can say they’re the first one,” Mike said, because ice making is a family thing.