On the morning of Feb. 6, the NHL’s 53-foot mobile refrigeration truck pulled into Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., crawling through concrete tunnels before parking on the concourse overlooking the field. Derek King and his crew stopped for a moment and surveyed their canvas. They had spent years planning, and waiting, to turn this venue into an ice rink, to bring an outdoor NHL hockey game to another unexpected market — and now they had 12 days to pull it off.
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“It’s just nice to get into town and get to work,” said King, the league’s senior director for facilities operations and hockey operations, who has helped engineer more than two dozen outdoor games for the NHL, bringing hockey to historic baseball fields, inside colossal football stadiums — even to a resort by the side of a lake. Here came another challenge: constructing a rink at a college football stadium in Raleigh. On the reimagined site, the Carolina Hurricanes will host the Washington Capitals on Saturday night.
To do so has taken a sprawling, round-the-clock effort by roughly 200 workers, and a staggering number of resources: including 20,000 gallons of water and 3,000 gallons of glycol coolant to produce a 200-foot sheet of two-inch ice.
The rink was built despite meteorological challenges presented by Raleigh’s climate — temperatures hovered in the high 70s this week — but its completion marks the end of a three-year journey that saw the project postponed in 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is a 24/7 operation all the way through to the game,” said NHL event producer Steve Mayer. “This ice crew we have is the best in the business. They know things I’ll never know. It’s amazing how they’re able to create ice in any condition.”
It is not the first time that King and his crew built a rink in a warmer climate — there have been outdoor games held in California, Texas and Tennessee — but the weather did dictate when they could work. The sun was their enemy. For nearly the past two weeks, they waited until nightfall to begin their work flooding the field. Before they could even get to that point, the field had to be covered with armor decking and a stage deck composed of 243 aluminum ice trays.
Carter-Finley has just one field access point, King said, and instead of jamming it up with his refrigeration truck, he opted to keep it open as a workspace and elevate the truck onto the concourse above the field.
His crews then had to build scaffolding and run flexible piping down to the field. Once those were in place, a booster pump sent the refrigerant down the pipes to the field so the freezing could commence. For seven nights, two teams of seven specialists — all have specific skills ranging from mechanics to plumbing to pipe-fitting — worked continuous one-hour shifts to flood the surface and create the ice.
The refrigeration unit is the nerve center for the operation. It is accompanied by two compressors and 300 tons of refrigeration, and is used to pump the coolant and keep the ice temperature at 22 degrees. King said that the crew can cool down or heat up the sheet, using sensors to monitor the temperature.
“We’re really not going to fight mother nature. She’s going to dictate what we do during this build,” King said.
King and his team have learned something new with every build. They’ve built rinks that have withstood all the elements — heat in Los Angeles, snow in Ann Arbor, Mich., sun in Lake Tahoe, Nev.This year’s rendition of the Winter Classic was held at Boston’s Fenway Park, which endured rain during the game and forced the ice crew to build a thicker sheet of ice.
“It’s remarkable,” said Capitals defenseman Matt Irwin, who has played in two warmer-weather outdoor games in Los Angeles and Dallas. “I couldn’t even tell you what goes into it. All I see them is lay wood over the field — and the next thing you know, you have a full hockey rink.”
The plan calls for the crew to flood enough for up to two inches of ice; the Hurricanes typically play on an inch-and-half sheet at their home PNC Arena. “We will run a little thicker just to be on the safe side … it gives us a lot sturdier of a sheet,” King said, and the most rewarding part is watching the crews paint lines and logos onto the ice by the end of the week.
The work continues after the game is over, the teams file off and the sold-out crowd heads home. The crew is not able to melt the ice, so they freeze it to an even colder temperature. Then it is broken up into chunks and hauled away on dump trucks.
“It’s precise. It’s a science,” Mayer said. “They’re the ones that have to come through for this game to take place.”