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Busch Stadium will be a site to behold

Busch Stadium will be a site to behold

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Winter Classic field takes shape

The ice rink in the middle of Busch Stadium gets closer to completion onThursday, Dec. 29, 2016, as the NHL and the St. Louis Blues gear up for the upcoming Winter Classic hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

When NHL ice guru Dan Craig stepped out of an 18-wheeler in downtown St. Louis on Dec. 15, ready to start preparing Busch Stadium for the Winter Classic, he took a gaze at the surroundings.

“Oh, this is gorgeous,” Craig marveled. “This is absolutely gorgeous. It’s fantastic, love it. You can feel it already.”

The man who has been in charge of all eight of the NHL’s Winter Classics could instantly see what those with the Blues, Cardinals and anyone else who’s driven past the stadium have been envisioning. A panoramic view that features the Arch and the Old Courthouse will offer a picturesque setting for fans willing to ignore distant sightlines to attend the city’s first NHL outdoor hockey game Monday.

“We’ve had some amazing concerts, great soccer events, a football game, all kinds of special events,” Cardinals President Bill DeWitt III said. “But to see ice out on second base, the St. Louis skyline behind it, and the Blues playing the Blackhawks, I don’t know how we’re going to beat that.

“They did a little bit of photo-shopping with the preliminary work and it looked pretty cool. But until you’re there and see it in real life with everybody moving around, I think that moment will be pretty special.”

Overhauling Busch Stadium for the estimated 50,000 fans who will walk through the turnstiles has been a chore, and with unpredictable weather looming, the job is far from wrapped up.

When Craig said in mid-December that the biggest challenge facing his 12-man crew was being well-rested, he wasn’t kidding. They have put in 16- to 18-hour days for the past two weeks, securing the boards and glass, setting up two inches of ice and painting the surface.

“The challenge here, this one is similar to what we did in Philadelphia,” Craig said. “We’re up on a high street, so we have a little bit of a long run from the street here with our piping to get our fluid back down onto the floor.”

Craig admitted that he was on pins and needles before making the trip to St. Louis. In addition to packing warm clothes, he needed to make sure that the trucks coming to town were packed with all the necessary piping.

“It’s not like we can go down to Home Depot and pick up this kind of stuff,” Craig said.

But thanks to the NHL’s mobile refrigeration plant — “$1 million on wheels,” Craig said — the process went off without any problems. The rink was up before the Christmas break and ready for the final touches early last week.

“Listen, they’re amazing,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Nobody in the world makes ice the way they do. From the first time that (Craig) built ice in Buffalo and we had some problems with it, each year it’s gotten better and better. I frequently hear players say that the ice in some of these games is better than the ice in some of our buildings. To suggest he is an expert or a genius when it comes to ice-making is probably an understatement.”

Craig’s expertise will be tested, however, by a forecast Monday that is predicting 50-degree temperatures and a 60 percent chance of showers. He said that 26 to 28 degrees is ideal, but his crew has adjusted to 70-degree days in California and Colorado, and he maintains that rain would not be the end of the world.

“Rain is not an issue,” Craig said. “We’ll freeze it as fast as it falls.”

Like the ice crew, DeWitt said that Busch Stadium is preparing for any conditions as well.

“We’ll be rolling out the hot chocolate,” he said. “We’ve winterized any bathrooms that were drafty. I think fans should expect football weather. You’ve just got to come prepared and ready to go no matter what the weather.”

Blues CEO of business operations Chris Zimmerman has attended previous outdoor games, including ones at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Fenway Park in Boston and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, and came away impressed. But he believes that Busch Stadium will be able to surpass those experiences.

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“They’re all special,” Zimmerman said. “Wrigley Field is not a bad place, despite the team that plays there. Fenway, the same. But quite honestly, those are two old iconic stadiums. The fact that this is newer and has more amenities, yet still has that feel of being part of the Cardinals’ history, is quite unique. I think it’s the best setting the outdoor game has had yet.”

Bettman was looking forward to arriving in town and seeing the conversion.

“Busch Stadium, and thank you to the Cardinals for sharing their home with us, it’s a very special place and for us to be able to transform it into an ice venue is fun for us,” he said. “I also think it’s going to be fun for Cardinals fans to see what their home looks like.”

Craig has been a part of many of these and said it never gets old.

“I’m invigorated,” he said. “It’s always nice to come into a city, especially with the history that the Blues have and just see how excited the fan base is. Hockey fans are always grateful that you’re coming to town — always.

“Everybody talks about how much work they are, but when I look around and I see how many people come to enjoy this, (the day has) evolved around this game. Their whole day, that’s what they do. Growing up, you would never, ever think that. It’s fantastic.”

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Jeremy Rutherford is the lead Blues beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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