From Hair to Air, Atmosphere Plays Role at Ford Field

The Badgers were having a bad hair day.

“Usually my hair is not wet all the way until about the third period,” Wisconsin forward Blake Geoffrion said, “and it was pretty much wet in the first 15 minutes there.”

“There” is Ford Field, where Wisconsin, RIT, Miami and Boston College are battling for the national championship. The bad hair day — shared by Geoffrion’s teammates Ben Street and Ryan McDonagh — was as much the result of the weather as the challenge of building and maintaining a high-quality ice surface on the floor of a stadium designed for football.

“I don’t know if anyone else felt the change in the weather from last night to today, or even the last two days, but I walked out of the building last night at about 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m., and knew that it would make a difference tomorrow,” said Dan Craig, the NHL Facilities Operations Manager.

Craig is the man in charge of all things ice in Detroit this weekend. The system used in Ford Field this weekend is the same one used in the 2010 Winter Classic and Frozen Fenway in Boston’s Fenway Park. Craig also supervised the ice for the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics in Vancouver. He knows what he’s doing, and he knows the weather — and how it may affect the games this weekend.

“Humidity is not a friend of ours,” Craig said on a day when the local temperature was around 60 degrees and the air was thick with spring rain. “What it does is it automatically falls to the ice surface because it’s the coldest spot in the building, so it automatically attracts it like a magnet.”

The idea of a national ice hockey championship being decided on a temporary surface with so many variables in play is something that has made people uneasy since the venue was announced in 2005.

“I was a little apprehensive when it was announced a few years ago,” said Boston College coach Jerry York. “I think it’s worked out much better than I thought. Looking at the sight lines, they appear better than Fenway Park. There’s more height to the balconies and the pitch of the stadium is more conducive to watching.”

Watching, OK. But what about playing?

“It is a little bit different than Fenway, but it’s going to be a great place to play,” said BC forward Matt Price. “I know I felt pretty good when I got on the ice today, and the rest of the guys were flying around as well. The boards look real nice and we’re definitely very excited. Obviously, we’re used to playing at these types of things in NHL rinks, but I didn’t really notice much difference. The ice should be better tomorrow as well.”

Forward Tommy Wingels, whose RedHawks practiced last on Wednesday, said that the ice was “slushy,” but not too bad. “We have to deal with it, but the other three teams have to deal with it as well.”

“It really reminded me of the last few days of outdoor ice that you get in Minnesota,” said Miami’s Jarod Palmer, a native of Fridley, Minn. “When the sun starts beating down, you know that you don’t have a whole lot of ice left and it starts to get a little soft.”

RIT goaltender Jared DeMichiel said that he didn’t notice anything unusual about the venue after the Tigers’ practice, the first of the day. “The boards are a bit more angled, but all the angles and hash marks, seams, stuff like that seems right.

“It’s a cool feeling. I’ve never played in a football stadium before, but it’s going to be fun.”

In addition to the challenges the temporary surface brings, players from two of the teams will be playing in their largest arenas, ever, and even though Wisconsin and BC have recent experience with games in nontraditional venues, Ford Field was a little overwhelming at first for all the players.

“There was a little bit of a shock factor last night,” said Tiger Dan Ringwald, “and today we didn’t really know what the ice was going to be like. Once you get on there, though, you realize it’s just another ice surface and when the game starts, the focus will be inside the glass.”

Just another ice surface is exactly what Craig wants this weekend. “Any time you do an event that’s out of the ordinary element, I take it as a major challenge,” said Craig. “I don’t know how many people watch the expression of the guys when they get onto the ice — their face, their eyes and their body language.

“That’s what tells me we’re doing the right job.”

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