Winnipeg ice guru knows all about the challenges presented by outdoor NHL games

Saturday's Heritage Classic at Regina's Mosaic Stadium presented its own set of challenges including relentless sun during the ice-generation phase and howling wind that arrived game day.

Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames face off Saturday night in Heritage Classic at Regina's Mosaic Stadium

Saturday's Heritage Classic at Regina's Mosaic Stadium will be the 23rd outdoor game for NHL senior manager of facilities operations and hockey operations Derek King, pictured ahead of the NHL Winter Classic in Philadelphia on Feb. 21, 2019. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

​Derek King has made hockey ice in enough football and baseball stadiums to know he can't beat Mother Nature. He has to work with her.

Saturday's Heritage Classic at Regina's Mosaic Stadium presented its own set of challenges including relentless sun during the ice-generation phase and howling wind that arrived game day.

"Every event kind of throws us something different," said King, the NHL's senior manager of facilities operations and hockey operations.

"Obviously Mother Nature can test you quite well. You have to adjust to whatever she throws your way. Stay patient. Stay calm."

The Winnipeg 'icemeister' worked his first NHL outdoor game in Calgary in 2011, when arctic windchill made McMahon Stadium's ice too brittle for heavy resurfacing machines.

So crews flooded the ice by hand and constantly patched cracks.

Regina marked King's 23rd outdoor game. The NHL's mobile refrigeration unit measuring 16 metres in length and weighing 270 tonnes arrived 12 days prior to Saturday's puck drop.

The 2019 NHL Heritage Classic between the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames is set to take place Saturday. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Generating two inches (five centimetres) of ice under a prairie sun was King's challenge at Mosaic.

"The ice plant has limitations," King said. "Sun has kind been our nemesis throughout the week. We knew we were going to have sun so we knew our ice building was at night."

A reflective tarp covering Mosaic's ice during the day maintained minus-6 degrees below it even when the mercury hit the teens Friday, he said.

The Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets each had just one skate upon arrival in Regina

Clouds arrived and the daytime temperature helpfully dropped below zero Saturday, but that change was accompanied by gusting northwest winds.

Historically challenging conditions

Flames head coach Bill Peters was already aware of wind's impact on players having been an assistant coach of the Detroit Red Wings in the 2014 Winter Classic against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium.

"I remember practising outdoors prior to the game in Ann Arbour and it was virtually impossible," Peters recalled. "Wind and sun. Goaltenders had to have eye black on. Couldn't see.

"Guys skating into the wind were struggling. Guys going the other way were flying. Hip flexors and groins come into play there so we had to shorten practice up.

"The third period of the game . . . the horn went at the 10-minute mark. We switched ends because of the conditions so it is different, but it's fun to be a part of."

The temperature for the 2016 Heritage Classic at Winnipeg's IG Field was a balmy 10 degrees for the host Jets and Edmonton Oilers.

Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien (33) checks Edmonton Oilers' Tyler Pitlick (15) into the boards during third period NHL Heritage Classic action, in the 2016 Heritage Classic hosted at Winnipeg's Investors Group Field. (Trevor Hagan/Canadian Press)

But the sun's glare off the ice obstructed the players' vision and delayed faceoff for two hours.

"I'll take plus-10. The sun delay was bizarre," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said.

"That was my memory from that game. Sitting in the room, we're about ready to go out, or whenever we got the news, and it's like 'we're really not playing this game because it's too sunny out?' That was pretty funny."

Snow significantly adds to an ice crew's workload, but Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey says "it makes it a little more picturesque. Down the line, regardless of the result we can have some cool photos."

The NHL's second outdoor game at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008 was beset by flurries.

Sidney Crosby scored the shootout winner for the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 2-1 win over the host Sabres.

"Snow was falling. It's a pretty iconic photo," Morrissey said.


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