SBJ/Dec. 6-12, 2010/This Week's Issue

Winter Classic to require fast turnaround at Heinz

As soon as the Steelers’ game against the Panthers ends Dec. 23, grounds crews from the home team and the NHL will start transforming Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field into the world’s largest hockey venue for the Jan. 1 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. Nine days marks the shortest window of prep time in the event’s four-year history.

“When the game ends, the stadium becomes ours, and we go to work,” said Don Renzulli, senior vice president of events for the NHL. “When it’s all done, you’re looking at 150 to 200 people working 12-hour shifts every day.”

The NHL has held its marquee regular-season event at baseball stadiums the last two seasons, and last year the NHL had three weeks to build the rink at Boston’s Fenway Park, which receives little use in the winter.

But Renzulli said Heinz Field’s 65,050 seats — compared with 39,928 at Fenway and 41,160 at ’09 host Wrigley Field — and the cooperation of the Steelers organization outweighed the challenge of negotiating the tight schedule.

Workers will first build a series of plank roadways on the field where they can bring in equipment to set up the rink. The rink construction requires a sizable staging platform on the field’s bowed surface, which drops 18 inches from the center to the sidelines. On Christmas, they will start making the ice and moving broadcast teams in to the various television booths.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are building an outdoor rink of their own in an adjacent parking lot that will open Dec. 23 for public skating. The rink will also host an international junior hockey tournament the week before the Winter Classic.

“There’s no time for the general public to use the rink [in Heinz Field], so that’s why we’re undertaking [the construction of the other rink],” said James Santilli, vice president of marketing for the Penguins.

According to Renzulli, NHL crews will begin tearing down the ice rink in Heinz Field immediately after the game. The field could host the AFC Wild Card playoff game as early as Jan. 8, giving the crews little time to resod and paint the field. The NHL declined to comment on the total cost of the construction.

Jim Sacco, executive director of stadium management for Heinz Field, said the build-out highlights the degree to which the Steelers, NHL and Pittsburgh Penguins organizations are working together to put on the event.

“We’re following [the NHL’s] lead on the field setup, and it seems like they have it down to a science,” Sacco said. “Everybody is on board. It’s definitely not something that happens every day.”

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