Winter Classic could rank as coldest outdoor game in NHL history

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But the NHL and the Minnesota Twins, the Major League Baseball team that operates Target Field, are prepared to help keep the fans, workers and teams as comfortable as possible.

There will be 40,000 hand-warmers, plus places to warm up and soup at concession stands. The penalty boxes will be hot seats in more ways than one. Even the ice will be heated.

Yes, the ice. This is an NHL regular-season game, and the conditions must be the best they can be.

“Minnesotans know what to do,” said Matt Hoy, Twins senior vice president of operations. “They just need to follow common sense and make sure that they prepare for the cold, and everybody will be fine.”

The NHL has staged 32 outdoor games, with temperatures ranging from 0 to 65 at face-off. The coldest was the 2003 Heritage Classic, the first outdoor game, between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens before 57,167 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

When the NHL scheduled this Winter Classic, it knew Minneapolis could be frigid. It was minus 6 at kickoff when the Minnesota Vikings hosted the Seattle Seahawks in an NFL wild card game before 52,090 at TCF Bank Stadium on Jan. 10, 2016, the coldest game in Vikings history and third-coldest in NFL history. 

“We had a lot of people here in Minnesota who told us also how tough a Minnesota fan is, and that was certainly a factor in coming here,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said.

The NHL ordered the hand-warmers months ago. NHL executive vice president of events Dean Matsuzaki said the League is still discussing distribution plans, but if fans need some, they can request them from guest services. Blankets will be allowed.

Target Field already has radiant heat in many areas on all levels, but the Twins have added radiant heat in the concessions stands for the workers. The bars will be open to the public, and stairwells and elevator lobbies will be open and heated as refuges for fans. 

“Ask any guest services person, and they can direct you to a place to warm up,” Hoy said. “We’re all used to it, but it doesn’t mean that people should not take caution.”

Delaware North, which operates food, beverage and retail at Target Field, will offer special concessions including chili, ramen, soups and Tater Tot Hot Dish, a Minnesota delicacy of ground beef, cream of mushroom soup, winter vegetables and crispy Tater Tots.

“We know Minnesotans can handle anything Mother Nature throws at them, but we wanted to offer additional comfort through our food and beverage program,” said Kurt Chenier, executive chef for Delaware North at Target Field.

Players will be provided with balaclavas and long underwear.

Heating the benches is standard operating procedure at outdoor games, but the NHL planned to test the equipment Wednesday, when the high was 7 and the low minus 9, to make sure it could handle the cold and decide if more is needed. The League has added more heat than usual to the penalty boxes.

“In the past, we’ve looked at it as, ‘Hey, it’s a penalty. You’re going to be cold for a little bit,'” Matsuzaki said with a laugh. “But now, with this cold, from a safety standpoint, we’re bringing in heat to the penalty benches as well.”

Then there is the ice itself. The optimum surface temperature for an NHL-caliber sheet is between 22 and 24 degrees.

“Once we get too cold, we can have some issues with it being brittle or skate marks where it does chip away, so we really try to control that temperature,” NHL senior manager of facilities operations Mike Craig said.

The floor of the rink is made of 283 aluminum ice pans. A mobile refrigeration unit pumps glycol through pipes to the pans and back to the truck to transfer heat. Craig has an app on his phone that gives him real-time data from eight sensors embedded in the ice and other sensors in the system.

When the air temperature is above the optimum ice temperature, the glycol and aluminum pans transfer heat away from the ice. But when the air temperature is below the optimum ice temperature, it transfers heat to the ice. The NHL has two inline heaters here, one at the refrigeration truck and another in the outfield, to warm the glycol in the pipes on the way to the floor. The crew can calibrate the temperature to a half-degree.

Really, for the most part, this is business as usual.

The optimum temperature for NHL game pucks is 15-17 degrees, to keep them from bouncing. In arenas, they are stored in freezers for at least 24 hours before games and transferred to freezers in penalty boxes.

Off-ice officials in the penalty boxes use stopwatches. If two minutes pass with the same puck, they swap it for a new one at the next stoppage to make sure the puck in play is at the right temperature.

Someone joked the NHL wouldn’t need a freezer for pucks here.

“I said, ‘You definitely need it, because if you just have them sitting out in the cold, you can’t control the temperature,'” said J.R. Boyle, NHL senior director of venue and facility operations. “Yes, it’s cold outside, but we can’t control it within our range. If we use the freezer, we’re still staying within our range and within our standards.”

That said, special paint on the pucks turns the NHL shield purple when frozen.

“I think because it’s so cold here,” Boyle said, “that might just stay purple the whole time.”

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