ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Six years ago on the eve of the first Winter Classic, Dan Craig was easy to spot.
The NHL’s ice guru was the guy with dark rings under his eyes, looking as though he might pass out, pulled in every direction as he attempted to pull off the first in the series of Winter Classic events that have become such a staple of the Jan. 1 sports calendar.
But back then, the pressure was through the roof.
"Oh boy, all alone in the middle of nowhere, that’s how that one felt like," Craig told ESPN.com Monday, chuckling at the memory.
He wasn’t referring to the city of Buffalo but rather how he felt handling everything that came his way that year as the Sabres hosted the Penguins in the first Winter Classic. It was a daunting challenge.
Six years later, it’s a more calm and composed Craig who awaits this year’s event at the Big House.
Lessons have been learned. The ice surface has improved with each and every game, Craig’s team learning with each passing event the do's and don'ts.
No sleepless nights, but still lots of work.
"If you take a look at the crew that we’ve developed over those years, we’ve got a pretty solid group of guys," Craig said Monday evening at the Big House. "I’ve got a pretty solid backing, guys with a lot of experience from Olympics and Stanley Cup finals. And they’ve been around me and know what to expect. That takes a lot of pressure off of me."
Having skated on the ice surface Monday with other invited media, I can tell you firsthand this ice surface tops them all. Usually at the Winter Classic media skate, you can start to see ice chips forming and sometimes holes that need fixing. And while the ice was a little worn down along the boards by the end of the skate, it was otherwise a fine sheet.
The NHL’s ice truck arrived here Dec. 10 and Craig’s crew began work Dec. 14-15.
"The challenge that we had is that we had two days where we had some pretty intense sun where we didn’t think we were going to have sun," said Craig. "It kind of set off the staff scheduling a little bit. We worked around the clock one night. One crew worked until 4 a.m., and I brought another crew in at 3:30 a.m. to relieve them."
If there’s any added pressure this season, it comes from the NHL’s decision to hold six outdoor games, which is a logistical challenge if there ever was one and certainly stretches out the NHL staff (my bet is next year the league holds four games).
But for now, Craig is concerned only about this week’s game. He’ll worry about the rest later.
"I’m focusing on just this one," he said. "I know that there’s a lot of planning that we’ve done in the past couple of months that deals with all of it, but I just deal with it one at a time as they come."
Craig won’t be able to be everywhere at once with outdoor games also being held in New York (two), L.A., Chicago and Vancouver. So his son Mike Craig, who has been part of Dan’s NHL ice crew for every outdoor game except the original Buffalo Winter Classic, will be in charge in some of the cities.
It’s a trustworthy father-son package. And there’s lots to do.
"The refrigeration trailer and the new set of hockey boards goes to L.A. after this event," said Dan Craig. "The floor here goes to New York, and the first truck that’s in Toronto right now goes to New York."
"I’m in L.A. to do the setup in that game, then I jump over to New York, and then I jump back to tear L.A. apart and then right back to New York," said Craig.
The father-son duo, along with the rest of the crew, will be setting up for the Chicago and Vancouver games during the Olympic break.
But right now, it’s all about making it as perfect as possible for Toronto-Detroit on Wednesday at the Big House.
"Everything is a little hectic, but it’s more about watching the weather, watching our truck, watching the temperatures on the ice to make sure it’s what we need to see," said Craig.
Mother Nature is always a factor. The driving rain at times took away from the game in Pittsburgh in 2011. But for Wednesday, it looks promising at this point.
"What I’m seeing is we’re expecting what we have right now," Craig said of Monday’s weather, which was overcast above the Big House, perfect because you don’t want the glare of the sun in the players’ eyes.
"It may get cooler, which is fine, and if we get some flurries thrown in there, that’ll just be great."