CHICAGO | Outdoor rinks have come lights years in the more than half-century since Tony Esposito stopped pucks in sub-zero weather in his native Sault Sainte Marie, Ont.
“When the snow started to fall (as he watched another in the NHL’s outdoor-game series), it just reminded me of when I was a kid,” the Blackhawks’ Hall of Famer said. “The puck gets lost in the snow. Just a lot of fun.
“We didn’t have a lot of choices. We had a couple of rinks we made ourselves. We actually had a rink that had lights and boards. That was the big time for us. Play on the rink with boards around it instead of snowbanks.”
Thus “Tony O” marveled at the NHL’s 53-foot, 300-ton capacity refrigeration truck that arrived Tuesday at Soldier Field.
Resembling a huge beer delivery truck from afar, the vehicle — which also serviced the Jan. 1, 2009 Winter Classic at Wrigley Field — stopped only to publicize its work. The truck will set up the all-weather outdoor rink that will host the Hawks and Pittsburgh Penguins in an NHL Stadium Series game at the stadium on March 1.
Dozens of workers already had laid in the outline of the rink by the time the truck arrived at 1 p.m. Eventually, the truck will pump up to 3,000 gallons of coolant into custom-made aluminum trays, according to the NHL. Flowing through a series of hoses from the truck, the coolant chills the trays to keep 2 inches of ice at 22 degrees.
Two front loaders kept busy on Tuesday scooping up chunks of snow on the edges of the field to deposit in huge refuse bins, where streams of hot water boiled it away amid large clouds of steam.
Dan Craig, the NHL’s senior director of facilities operations, will be challenged over the next 10 days by the continuation of this area’s wild winter.
The balmy 45-degree sunshine of Tuesday will be followed by possible thunderstorms Thursday, then a plunge into the 20s over the weekend. Only a fool would bet against more snowfall prior to March 1.
“A lot of our guys are very much aware of what we’re going to be up against. We’re watching the weather 10 to 14 days out,” said Craig, who recently set up the Dodger Stadium rink amid 84-degree weather, which was unseasonably warm even for Los Angeles.
“You wake up in the morning. Whatever Mother Nature gives you, you deal with it.”
The main setup day is Thursday. Craig’s crew will wear ponchos through any forecast soaking.
Craig is not worried at all about Soldier Field’s much-criticized turf as a base for the rink. The turf surely took a supreme beating since the Bears went into hibernation for the winter.
“We’ve gone the gamut on a lot of different venues,” he said. “The field’s been surveyed. We know where all the nuances are within the building. We’ve put up our stage. It’s a level stage. We put our pads on top of that.
“We lift everything up. It’s not lifted up very much, but it’s enough for us to not have to deal with any type of field like that.”
Esposito was born 40 years too soon to revel in the glamour of an outdoor NHL game.
“I’d love it,” Esposito said. “This could be the highlight of a guy’s career. Because it’s very rare to be involved in something which could be so much fun. It’s good for the NHL, great exposure and great for Chicago.”
Esposito was used to playing in the smoky, loud old Chicago Stadium in front of an “official” 16,666 — really an unannounced 20,000 or more skirting the fire marshal’s rules on standees. Performing in front of more than 60,000 would have been different, and “Tony O” played it for laughs.
“That’s 40,000 more people who would have booed me,” he mused.