On the job: the art and science of making ice for the NHL
Nobody gets closer to the ice during a National Hockey League (NHL) game than Mike Craig. He doesn’t play on the ice; he’s in charge of making it. Craig (Recreation Facility Maintenance ’99) is the NHL’s Senior Director of Facility and Hockey Operations.
“I grew up in Bonnyville, Alberta, and played hockey as a boy, through my teens, and as a member of the SAIT Trojans when I was a student. I always had a great passion for the game, but I realized playing for the NHL wasn't in the cards.”
Mike sought out his father, Daniel Craig, for career advice. His dad was in charge of the ice surface at Northlands Coliseum during some Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty years in the late 1980s. They agreed that a SAIT education, particularly in the power engineering area, was the way to build a future in hockey.
How did you get to be in charge of making ice for the NHL?
MC: My journey started when I was pretty young. Like most Alberta youngsters, I played hockey. Plus, I had some pretty fun experiences being around Northlands Coliseum because of my father’s job. I experienced many different aspects of the industry, including meeting the players and attending some games. Growing up in Northern Alberta and ending up at the home of the Oilers certainly made an impact on my life.
After playing junior hockey, it was time to get serious about a future career. My dad and I discussed my options, including my desire to play collegiate hockey. We knew friends who attended SAIT, and we agreed that the technical aspects of the program, particularly areas focusing on heating and cooling would serve me well.
My first job after graduation was as an engineer at a newly opened arena in Kelowna, B.C.– home of the Kelowna Rockets. The knowledge and skills I gained through my education at SAIT, plus having access to “the best in the business” to consult with (my dad!) on the day-to-day challenges of keeping a rink in tip-top shape, made for a great combination.
I joined the NHL in 2013 as a Senior Manager of Facility Operations, where I worked with my father before he retired as the League’s Vice-President of Hockey Operations in 2021. When we became coworkers, we came full circle from our time hanging together at the rink when I was a kid to when we teamed up on the ‘Edmonton Bubble,’ the NHL playoffs in 2020 during COVID.
What’s the key to making the perfect ice for an NHL hockey venue?
MC: Over the years, I have learned that ice-making combines art and science. There is science and precision to achieve the optimal arena environment, but managing and adapting to the ever-changing conditions is an art. We keep our eyes on many different elements to maintain ideal ice conditions. For example, each NHL venue has its own water treatment facility because the mineral content in every city’s water varies quite a bit. That’s just one of the issues that can affect the quality of the ice.
On game day, the key is to monitor the top layer of the surface and make constant adjustments to the mechanical equipment, so the temperature is kept to within one degree of -6 to -5 Celsius.
Looking after ice for the entire NHL must be a big job. How do you do it?
MC: I’m on the road a lot. I travel from city to city during the season, checking in with each local ice-making staff to ensure conditions meet strict league standards. There are 32 venues in the NHL. I am part of the team responsible for the playing environment in all of them — the boards, the glass, and especially the ice.
During NHL signature events like the All-Star game, I get particularly hands-on. This year I was part of the Hockey Operations staff who traveled to South Florida for the All-Star weekend. We worked with a local group of more than 30 people making the ice, plus all the other departments involved in this huge event. In addition to meetings, rehearsals, and preparing the ice for the All-Star Skills Competition and the All-Star game itself, we had to coordinate around two Florida Panthers home games and an unrelated concert that required covering the ice surface. My job was to coordinate and supervise everything to ensure the ice was in the best shape during this activity.
One of the other reasons the NHL hired me was my experience with outdoor games. Our crews have learned a lot over the years working in rain, sun, warm weather, and extreme cold. We look ahead at forecasts and decide how we will address each challenge. I’m part of a team that makes ice for NHL Winter Classic outdoor games. Creating an ice rink from scratch on a football or baseball stadium's field presents many challenges. Each venue is very different; we have to bring in mobile refrigeration units, flooring, and boards.
Considering your job, can you sit and watch a hockey game like everybody else?
MC: When I’m not working, I occasionally watch a game on TV with friends, and they tell me I watch differently than they do. I’m looking for subtle things like how the puck moves, the condition of the glass, and other small details — just like when I’m on the job.
Inside the Bubble: Dan and Mike Craig
In Sept. 2020, the NHL went "inside the bubble" with the father and son duo Dan and Mike Craig, who run the ice crew and maintain the ice surface within the Edmonton bubble.