NEW YORK - Come Jan. 2, when the Flyers and Rangers play the Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies' home ballpark will be transformed into an homage to outdoor hockey. The NHL's signature regular-season event will appear seamlessly integrated into a facility specifically erected to provide an optimal baseball-viewing experience.
The bulk of the preparation responsibilities fall on the shoulders of Don Renzulli, the NHL's senior vice president of events. In April, he started overseeing biweekly logistical planning meetings with about 50 people in the largest conference room on the 14th floor in the NHL's New York offices. The preparations for the Winter Classic at CBP began on Nov. 21 when armor decking protection was placed on the field. The installation of auxiliary seats in centerfield started on Dec. 5. The rink will be installed Monday, when the bulk of the in-stadium work commences. It is expected to take 5 to 7 days to complete, depending on the weather.
By the conclusion of the weeklong festivities, Renzulli estimates about 1,600 people will have worked to morph what has become a baseball oasis into a hockey wonderland.
"I think they're going to look at it as an entirely different venue," said Renzulli, who worked for the NFL for 12 years, including 10 years handling the operational aspects of the Super Bowl. "We have not, and I don't think we ever will, go in and totally change the ballpark from what it truly is . . . We've always tried to pay homage to whatever venue it is. What they're going to see is a décor package in the bowl itself that is different than what you'll see in a World Series or even a regular Phillies game."
A Placido Polanco throw to Ryan Howard could stretch from one goal to the other. The rink will spread from first base to third, starting behind the pitcher's mound and going to shallow centerfield. Although the field is protected from destruction, the mound will be displayed to maintain the aura of a ballpark.
This will be the fifth Winter Classic. Two have been played in football stadiums (Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium and Pittsburgh's Heinz Field), and two have been at ballparks (Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park). Because it's the baseball offseason, ballparks provide more time for preparation and events. The added time even allows the NHL employees to return home to spend Christmas with their families. The boards will be the same as those used in the previous Winter Classics, decorated with WC logos.
Football stadiums provide more seats, but baseball stadiums bring fans closer to the action. Although Citizens Bank Park was built for baseball, it actually has elements of a football stadium that Renzulli believes will be favorable for the Winter Classic.
"It's more of a football stadium in my view in that it's very vertical," Renzulli said. "It's like the Linc. It goes straight up."
For that reason, the best seats are actually higher in the ballpark. Fan preference is subjective, but Renzulli believes the best sightlines will be in the upper decks, specifically along the first- and third-base lines, where fans can watch the entire ice.
"One of the reasons why we're first-to-third is if you took a ruler and went along the back of a rink on a piece of paper, the majority of the seats are from that line back to home plate," Renzulli said. "We wanted to bring the rink as close as we could, making sure everyone could get a fair crack at it."
It also helps that Citizens Bank Park is a modern facility, compared to Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, which, as the oldest facilities in U.S. pro sports, presented challenges regarding winterizing. At Wrigley, for example, the NHL needed to bring in portable sinks and small heaters because of problems turning on the water. At Fenway, plywood walls were added so heat could be turned on in select spots. The amenities at Citizens Bank Park also make the experience more favorable, whether it's because of updated concessions, club seats, luxury suites or high-definition screens.
The HD screens are especially important, and the NHL is installing additional videoboards so fans in leftfield can watch without turning their heads. Every fan will have a view of a videoboard from his or her seat.
"I don't care where you're at, at any stadium, you're watching a puck going 30, 40 miles an hour from 400 feet away, you're not going to see a heck of a lot," Renzulli said. "The big deal about HD screens now is you can see everything, and you're there. You can look down and watch it and can also look up and see it in HD."
One of the challenges at Citizens Bank Park, though, is running the piping to the ice. At Fenway Park, there was a gate by first base that allowed the piping to run directly from the rink to the refrigeration truck, which the NHL purchased for the Winter Classic. At Citizens Bank Park, the truck will be beyond rightfield. It will need to go through the concourse, the bullpens and across the field.
Renzulli diplomatically said all stadiums present different challenges. Five years into the event, his team has refined the preparation process. The custom-made refrigeration truck was essential in the event's evolution, designed and built specifically for the Classic. It pumps coolant through the piping to keep the ice frozen, allowing the game to be played even when conditions are not perfect. It requires 10,000 gallons of water to make an ice surface with a depth of 1 inch. The Winter Classic ice surface, which will be cooled to 22 degrees, will be 1 1/2-2 inches thick.
Before the ice can be used, it has to be approved by NHL Hockey Operations, which consults with the teams and the players association.
There are 22 people who specifically work on the ice. There are about 300 people from the NHL involved in setting up the facility. That does not include local labor. In total, there are about 800 people involved in the game operations, and another 800 from Citizens Bank Park involved in concessions, parking and other details specific to the stadium. The NHL asks the Phillies to "really staff up," requiring, at the minimum, the amount of staffers who would work Game 7 of the World Series.
"We know we're going to be sold out," Renzulli said. "In this instance here, we know we're going to have some rowdy fans. Engaged fans."
The Winter Classic has become a popular television event, but it's the stadium experience that has consumed most of Renzulli's time. Top NHL executives spoke about the tailgating and festivities. There is also an auxiliary rink around home plate that will be used as part of player introductions. The goal is to create an atmosphere that goes beyond a typical game experience, making an afternoon at the Winter Classic different than an evening at the arena.