Pittsburgh Preps Frosty Welcome For NHL Classic

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The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington capitals face off Saturday in the annual NHL Winter Classic. In preparation for the event, Pittsburgh's Heinz Field has undergone a transformation — from football gridiron to outdoor hockey rink.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

The Pittsburg Penguins and the Washington Capitals face off tonight in the annual NHL Winter Classic. The game's been pushed back because of rain. Gemma Hooley reports that in preparation for the event, Pittsburgh's Heinz Field has undergone a transformation from football gridiron to outdoor hockey rink.

GEMMA HOOLEY: Ask any player what it's like to skate outdoors, and they'll all give you that look, the look Penguins forward Michael Rupp has right now - a secret smile, a faraway gaze, a quick trip back to childhood games on frozen ponds.

Mr. MICHAEL RUPP (Forward, Pittsburgh Penguins): Did you ever go swimming in the nude? It's kind of similar to that, I guess. It's a freeing experience. Like you're just sitting there and you've got the air around you. You can see it. It's a pretty cool feeling.

HOOLEY: But the Winter Classic is no backyard skate. It's a competitive regular season game, which means the outdoor ice has to match indoor quality.

NHL ice master Dan Craig has been out here for a week now, spraying paper-thin layers of hot water to build dense ice. He makes it sound a whole lot simpler than it is.

Mr. DAN CRAIG (NHL Ice Master): I put water in an ice cube tray and I put it in the freezer. And I take a whole bunch of those ice cube trays and I put them down and I make a hockey rink out of them.

HOOLEY: Don Renzulli is special events chief for the NHL. His job is to create iconic visual moments for these outdoor games.

Mr. DON RENZULLI (NHL Official): Without snow this year it was a little bit difficult. So we have a lot of the fake snow out there. We've painted grass. There'll be strobes going off underneath the fake snow that you'll see, and then at the end of the anthems we'll have pyro going off on the top of the building.

HOOLEY: With the ice built and the stage set, it comes down now to nature's thermostat. Renzulli and Craig have been pouring over radar maps and barometric pressure readings.

Mr. RENZULLI: Yeah, there's rain. They're calling for rain, but we're looking now for rain patterns. So if we can get a pocket of, you know, three, four hours in there, you know, that's what we're looking for right now.

HOOLEY: The rink crew and ice truck can deal with some rain and with higher-than normal temperatures. But the players wear visors, and seeing the 100-mile-an-hour puck in pouring rain will be tough.

Mr. RENZULLI: It's like your windshield. If you don't turn the windshield wipers on, sometimes you can't see. We want to make sure they're safe, and I think we also want to make sure that this is right for the fan.

HOOLEY: Outside the stadium, fans in hockey jerseys crane for a glimpse of the action.

Unidentified Man: So it sounds like they're doing a sound check. And it's getting a little louder and louder and louder, and they're also doing (unintelligible) light check around the stands, so it's a great day.

HOOLEY: Inside, on the clean icesheet, Washington Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner had a chance to skate in the team's only practice before the big game.

Mr. KARL ALZNER (Washington Capitals Player): It's just different. I think just getting that wind in your face. I just like to feel a breeze. I like to - it's pretty much like you're just a little kid again, and that's you know, that for so many guys grew up(ph) learning their hockey.

HOOLEY: Both teams will take those childhood lessons learned onto the ice with them in Pittsburgh as fierce competitors, eyes cast skyward.

For NPR News, I'm Gemma Hooley.

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