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Nation's Capital Prepares for NHL's Outdoor Winter Classic

  • Parke Brewer

It may seem an unusual place for an ice skating rink, but Washington’s baseball stadium will host a National League Hockey (NHL) game on New Year’s Day.

The league, which normally plays its games in 20,000-seat indoor arenas, has enjoyed substantial marketing success since it began experimenting with outdoor hockey in 2008.

Games have been played in some of America’s greatest football and baseball stadiums, including Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Soldier Field in Chicago and Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, where more than 105,000 people typically turn out to watch the state university's football team play.

This year's New Year’s Day match-up, known as the Winter Classic, will see the Washington Capitals face off against the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals.

Construction of the temporary, full-size rink — which stretches from the first-base line to the third-base line of the infield — began two weeks ago, and required up to 500 people to set up. Game day events will involve thousands of workers, including stadium personnel and television broadcast crews.

“Each year as we go through, we’re picking up new things that we learn, and we become more efficient and better at what we do,” said Don Renzulli, the NHL’s executive vice president of events.

Each stadium has unique qualities that have to be taken into consideration.

“I think the first thing you look at is, what is the crown [high point] of the field,” Renzulli said. “You go into football stadiums and you’ll have a big crown for drainage. You come into baseball stadiums, some are big, some are not so big. This one [Nationals Park] is not that big."

“We put a base down that’s just stage decking," he told VOA. "So we’ll get ourselves a level base. The whole surface is up on a deck.”

Once the deck is constructed, the surface is covered with plywood and some 300 aluminum pans.

“They all have pipes running through them,” Renzulli said. “They’re all connected, and there will be two pipes that go all the way outside the building to our truck,” which is for refrigeration.

“[They] fill it up with glycol and get it running and start cooling it down,” he said. “And then at that point they start spraying water on it and start to build up ice.”

Workers have gotten better at making suitable ice through years of staging these outdoor games, Renzulli added.

“We’ve studied all the different types of rinks that we’ve put down, and we’ve changed a lot, and that’s why we’ve ended up on a deck," he said. "It gives us that nice solid surface to work off of. And once you have that, it’s no different than playing in an arena when you start to build up [the ice] on concrete.”

Weather unpredictable

Previous Winter Classics have been played in Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Buffalo, New York.

FILE - A general view from the roof of Michigan Stadium during the 2014 Winter Classic hockey game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Jan. 1, 2014.

FILE - A general view from the roof of Michigan Stadium during the 2014 Winter Classic hockey game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Jan. 1, 2014.

The University of Michigan’s football stadium in Ann Arbor hosted the Detroit Red Wings matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs on New Year’s Day 2014 before a record NHL crowd of 105,491.

But winter weather in the United States is often unpredictable.

“That’s why I think the experience with the people we’ve had here working on all these games gives us a little bit of an advantage," Renzulli said. “We’ve already encountered snow, rain, ice [sleet] — you know, a perfect day is 30-degrees [Fahrenheit;-1 C] and overcast, and everybody’s happy with a little snow in the forecast. That’s a perfect day for us.

“We don’t always get that,” he added. “So we’ll deal with what Mother Nature has to throw at us.”

Washington’s New Year’s Day temperature is expected to be around 42 degrees Fahrenheit (5 C.)

Winter Classics have generally been sell-outs, even with face-value ticket prices typically more than twice that of a regular season indoor game, largely because of the cost to stage the games. On the secondary market for Washington’s Winter Classic — where more than 40,000 will fill Nationals Park — standing-room tickets are selling for as much as $200 apiece.

Winter Classics are popular because they are unique, Renzulli said.

“I think it gives everybody the opportunity, from our avid fan to our non-avid fan, to really come out and see hockey in a whole different setting,” he said. “We can do things that you obviously can’t do in an arena, from game presentation and how we handle pre-game and intermissions. So I think when people come it’s more of a family affair.

“A lot of young kids we’ve seen over the years come, and it’s a big thing for us to get young children out here,” he said. “If they get involved in the game and see it when they’re young, they tend to become a fan for life... But I just think that everybody wants to come for that big-event feel, and that’s what this game is.”

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