This Is How Gillette Stadium Was Readied for the Winter Classic

It took hundreds of workers and man-hours.

Gillette Stadium Winter Classic

Photo provided by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Over the last two weeks, hundreds of workers have been laboring around the clock to turn Gillette Stadium into a hockey rink for the eighth annual Winter Classic. On New Year’s Day, their efforts will be on full display.

The Boston Bruins will take on the Montreal Canadiens Friday in one of the most highly anticipated Winter Classic matchups to date. The two rivals possess a palpable disdain for each other and seldom disappoint when they face off. The Bruins last played in the Winter Classic six years ago at Fenway Park when they took on the Philadelphia Flyers.

What also won’t disappoint is the ice surface these two teams will be playing on. Creating an impeccable sheet of ice outdoors is an arduous task that the NHL’s Senior Director of Hockey Operations, Dan Craig, has perfected over the years. The most important part of the process is the NHL’s unique refrigeration unit, which stands at 53-feet tall and weighs 300 tons. This machine pumps as much as 3,000 gallons of glycol, the freezing element that’s commonly found in kitchen refrigerators, into 243 custom-made aluminum trays that span the length of the playing surface in order to keep the ice at its ideal temperature of 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once the cooling unit is installed, the subfloor is built, and the boards are erected, it’s time to create the ice. In NHL arenas, the ice is approximately 1-1.25 inches thick. But when the league takes the game outdoors, the ice thickness expands to two inches in order to endure any extreme weather conditions.

Ten-thousand gallons of water must be added for every inch of ice, which is sprayed slowly, almost as if it’s a fine mist. After that, the ice surface is whitened by using 350 gallons of water soluble paint. Lines and logos are also painted on the ice, which at this point is nearly ready for game time.

To provide more insight on the process, Craig spoke to an assembled group of media members at Gillette Stadium Wednesday. Answers have been edited for brevity.

Photo by Alex Reimer

Photo by Alex Reimer

What has the biggest challenge been over the last couple of days?

The change of weather about every two hours. You have a plan and all of a sudden Mother Nature decides she’s going to do something else. You have to do a management seminar, regroup and say, ‘OK guys, we’re going in another direction.’

How does Friday’s forecast look?

We’re in good shape. They tell me we’re going to have a double layer of clouds here even though it’s going to be a little bit warmer, so that’s good. The thing is, if we only have a single layer, the heat that comes through it kind of affects us a little bit. But that’s why we have the truck and that’s why we have the crews that we have.

How much has the technology changed since Fenway Park six years ago?

It’s more the monitoring [of the ice]. Our crew is more experienced and we add guys every year so they gain experience. We want to make sure these old guys aren’t being beat up all of the time. We don’t mind going through three or four days on a stretch, but we can’t do the 14 days that these young guys can.

The set up is basically the same, but it’s how the pumps run and when the weather is changing, how it affects the ice and when the wind comes across, how that affects one side of the rink compared to the other side of the rink.

Having the crew here allows me to really focus in on those changes that I have to make.

What do you look for tomorrow (Thursday) when the guys are on the ice for practice?

I watch their skates and see how things react in different areas of the ice surface. I’m really watching their expressions, because I know how a lot of them play the game. Even in practice, I know what the drills are supposed to be.

I watch what people are looking for and then I’ll make my notes as to what areas we have to check, just because somebody took a turn and they looked back and were kind of like, ‘What is that?’ So those are the things I have to look for.