Two of the NHL’s “ice masters”, Andrew Higgins and Derek King, have arrived in Seattle to oversee the transformation of T-Mobile Park into an oversized hockey arena for the Vegas Golden Knights vs. Seattle Kraken Winter Classic game on New Year’s Day. The field starts getting covered up on Monday.
“We have seven trucks that bring in our equipment and material,” Higgins told Seattle Hockey Insider on Monday. “That includes the ice plant (compressor – ice making)”.
It doesn’t include all of the other building materials, event decorations, and set-up. Those are different departments.
In the next couple of days the ice crew of about 12 workers will begin installing the foundation for the rink itself. As this week moves along, boards and rink structure will be constructed, and by Christmas the crew will be very close to painting the lines and logos on what will be a brand new sheet of ice at the home of the Seattle Mariners.
That crew will grow to about 20 individuals by the time of the game on January 1st, in an effort to make sure the ice quality is maintained and the event goes off flawlessly.
An Unlikely Tradition
There have been dozens of outdoor games held since the NHL launched the Winter Classic in Buffalo in 2008. Prior to that there was the Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003, the first outdoor game played as part of a regular season. 57,000-plus fans braved the sub-zero temperatures at Commonwealth Stadium as the goalies wore toques (winter hats) over the tops of their masks during warm-ups.
Back then the league’s lone ice guru was Dan Craig, who, when he wasn’t overseeing special events like Winter Classics, was touring the NHL trying to help the regular NHL arenas maintain their ice quality. Craig retired in late 2022, replaced in some way, shape, or form by three men, his son Mike, Higgins, and King.
This “Kinger” is not related to the other “Kinger”, Kris King, the former NHL player who’s worked a number of years in league hockey operations.
Outside of their fancy titles like “Senior Director of Facilities Operations and Hockey Operations”, these guys simply love making outdoor hockey dreams come true. For some of the NHL players who’ve never had a chance to play in an outdoor game, that would be most of them, it brings back memories of growing up playing pond hockey in Canada. For the rest of them it simply brings about the unique opportunity to play of front of a massive crowd in a very cool environment.
Some have argued over the years that the proliferation of outdoor games, whether it’s the Winter Classic, the ‘Stadium Series’ events, or occasional Heritage Classics, that the events have lost significance or been watered down.
In fact, they haven’t. Much like the NHL All-Star Game, it’s more about the local market and the teams involved. All-Star Games are a party for national and local sponsors and a chance for the host markets to shine. The same can be said for the outdoor events. Whether a national audience tunes in with record numbers or not, the local fans, event to event, get to share in a potential once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For the Kraken folks and league officials, the major concern regarding this year’s game revolved around the fact the University of Washington football team is involved in the national championship semi-final on New Year’s Day. Fortunately the Winter Classic will have concluded a couple of hours before the Huskies start playing in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Instead of conflict, now it simply makes for an incredible double-feature for sports fans in western Washington. One rare event Kraken fans can see in person, the other one they can watch on TV.
((Editor’s Note: Having worked two Winter Classics on national TV or radio and covered five other outdoor games, I’d strongly suggest Kraken fans getting to the event if at all possible. The atmosphere is second to none. Just hope there’s enough concession stands open, a problem at the 2019 game in South Bend, Indiana in particular. If the concession and bathroom lines aren’t too long, you’re golden. Of course, aside from that, you could always try crotching a leather flask. Shhhh))
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