Preparing The Big House for The Big Chill involves attention to myriad detail, dealing with the unknown
Photo courtesy of Michigan State University communications
The folder on Craig Wotta's desk is no more than a couple of inches thick.
It's filled with e-mails, schematic drawings and other bits of information. The collection of paperwork is a valuable reference guide to the $416,000 undertaking that will begin Sunday at Michigan Stadium.
For Wotta, the Yost Ice Arena operations manager, the folder represents years of planning, all building to a day he realized was coming eight years ago.
In 2002, Wotta sat inside the stadium, watching Michigan's football team literally tear up the field on a miserable fall afternoon against Penn State. By the end of the day, the field was unplayable - the final evidence required that it was time for the stadium's natural grass surface to be replaced with turf.
Once the turf went in, Wotta knew Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson would be eager to see an outdoor hockey game played in Michigan Stadium.
A year before, the Michigan hockey team traveled to East Lansing to participate in The Cold War, the first of its kind outdoor college hockey game. The event, played at Spartan Stadium on a rink that was constructed in one week, drew a then world-record 74,544 fans.
Two days after the Penn State game eight years ago, Michigan officials announced Michigan Stadium's playing surface would return to an artificial surface, opening the door for The Big Chill At the Big House.
It wasn't long before Wotta's phone rang.
"Don't let them do it," the voice on the other end of the call said.
Tom Campbell was only half joking.
Campbell, the operations manager at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing, staged the Cold War game, transforming Spartan Stadium into an outdoor hockey rink in a week.
"I knew it was possible," Campbell said Tuesday. "But all the logistics to put it together was the problem."
Weather was a major concern. By Tuesday of game week, temperatures at the field level hovered in the mid-80s. The portable refrigeration equipment Campbell used worked as long as temperatures remained below 70 degrees.
In addition, the crown at the center of the stadium that allowed the field to drain properly was an issue.
Before anything else could be done, the field had to be leveled. Campbell and his staff built a plywood platform to stabilize the playing surface. They borrowed a stage with aluminum planks the refrigeration would run through to keep the ice surface at the proper temperature.
After flooding the rink structure on Monday night, temperatures exceeded the refrigeration system's limits. The ice melted.
Later in the week, temperatures dropped, allowing Campbell and his staff and volunteer teams of 40 workers to build up 3 inches of ice. That wasn't enough to support the Zamboni, so the ice was increased to 4 inches.
By the time the game was played, temperatures were in the 30s. The Wolverines and Spartans played to a 3-3 tie.
"It was physically demanding because (the concept) was so new that we had no clue what to expect," Campbell said. "But it was a magical night - everyone was so tired because so much had gone into it, but all of a sudden, everything came together."
Berenson, who had played in front of 15,000 in an outdoor setting in Europe, loved every minute of it.
"This just blew it away," Berenson said Wednesday, comparing the environment he had played in and the one inside Spartan Stadium. "It was just terrific and that's when people started to look ahead and wonder if this could even be a possibility at Michigan."
Campbell and Wotta frequently trade information about their industry and about what Wotta will face preparing for the Big Chill game against Michigan State on Dec. 11.
The transformation of Michigan Stadium will begin Sunday, hours Michigan's home football finale against Wisconsin.
Sunday afternoon, IceRinkEvents.com, will arrive to lay the foundation for the Big House rink.
The company, which installed the rink for last year's Camp Randall Classic in Wisconsin, will assemble the playing surface and use a Styrofoam base that will cushion the structure. Workers will install patented ice mats to keep the playing surface cold before building the outer shell of the rink.
Berenson said he would like to see the game played on a full-sized Olympic rink which is longer and wider than the NHL style used at Michigan State nine years ago. Since then, the NHL has held an annual Winter Classic, placing hockey inside Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston.
Within a couple of days of Thanksgiving, the refrigeration system will be fired up.
The rest is up to Mother Nature.
"Whether it's Michigan Stadium, Wrigley Field or Burr Park, when it's outside, it's an adventure," Wotta said. "It's the things you can't control - that's what you worry about."
Wotta traveled to Madison last year for Michigan's outdoor hockey game against Wisconsin. He studied the Frozen Four set up at Ford Field in Detroit last year.
Wotta monitored the weather in mid-December in 2009, making daily notes about cloud and sun movement.
He did so before permanent lighting was approved for Michigan Stadium. He figured even if the sun did shine on the day of the game, a 3 p.m. start was late enough to keep sunlight off the ice. But he understands that too much sun or any amount of inclement weather could have an adverse effect on the ice.
Wotta won't have a good idea of what weather conditions will be like until a week before when a slate of 25 games will be played on the surface leading up to the Michigan-Michigan State game.
His staff will use Adrian College's game on Dec. 4 as a dress rehearsal, testing everything from the statistics program to the public address system. The actual Big Chill game will be treated like a home football game from a staff perspective. University officials expect a crowd as high as 112,000.
Wotta considers the week-long outdoor festival a celebration of hockey, fielding games from the junior hockey level to contests that will feature local high school teams. Each game will season the ice, preparing the surface for the main event.
The week will wrap up on Dec. 12 with a public skate.
"This is a new challenge, and anytime you do anything new, it's invigorating and it's challenging," Wotta said. "This is a chance to make history, and to be part of that is exciting.
This is a chance for us to really do something special."
When it's all said and done, Wotta expects the final product to be a first-class event. After the week concludes, Wotta will store the folder away for safe keeping, preparing for a similar event should it take place.
Sixty-three miles away, Wotta's Michigan State ice management counterpart will smile, fully understanding what goes into staging such a monumental event.
"It will be amazing," Campbell said. "There's something about the atmosphere of an outdoor game that is sort of indescribable. And when you have all those people inside the stadium and the setting of the ice on the football field, coming from an ice person, it's awesome.
It will just be awesome."