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Cardinals help prepare Busch Stadium for Winter Classic

MLB.com @LangoschMLB

ST. LOUIS -- The transformation started on Dec. 15, shortly after a truck carrying a 53-foot, 300-ton capacity refrigeration unit turned onto Clark Street, approaching Busch Stadium. It stopped for a short photo op, during which Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III and St. Louis Blues majority owner Tom Stillman emerged from the cab, donned Winter Classic stocking caps and talked glowingly about one of the most anticipated events to come to St. Louis in recent memory.

And then, after the media dispersed and another seven trucks loaded with equipment parked at Busch Stadium, it was time to get to work.

ST. LOUIS -- The transformation started on Dec. 15, shortly after a truck carrying a 53-foot, 300-ton capacity refrigeration unit turned onto Clark Street, approaching Busch Stadium. It stopped for a short photo op, during which Cardinals president Bill DeWitt III and St. Louis Blues majority owner Tom Stillman emerged from the cab, donned Winter Classic stocking caps and talked glowingly about one of the most anticipated events to come to St. Louis in recent memory.

And then, after the media dispersed and another seven trucks loaded with equipment parked at Busch Stadium, it was time to get to work.

Ninety-one days before Busch Stadium hosts a nationally televised season opener between the Cubs and Cardinals, it will serve as the backdrop for one of the NHL's marquee events. After years of prodding Stillman to push St. Louis' candidacy for an outdoor game, DeWitt learned in 2015 that Busch Stadium was on the short list.

Now, its time in the spotlight is near. Next Monday, with Busch Stadium packed to capacity, the Blues and Chicago Blackhawks will meet in the NHL's ninth Winter Classic (noon CT).

"I think fans already know that we can do just about anything here, whether it's a big concert, soccer, football, special events," DeWitt said of Busch Stadium, which opened in 2006. "And now to have hockey on that list is pretty amazing. I think for us it's also just exciting to combine the symbolism of the Cardinals and the Blues, and also the city of St. Louis. Busch Stadium has the great city views of the arch and the skyline and bringing that all together is, I think, why St. Louisans are excited."

It's an especially exciting event for DeWitt, who began playing hockey in prep school and still takes to the ice as part of a men's team in St. Louis. His father, Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr., was once a shareholder with the Cincinnati Stingers, which was a World Hockey Association team from 1975-79.

Busch Stadium will join Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Citizens Bank Park and Nationals Park as Major League stadiums to host a Winter Classic event. Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium and Coors Field have also hosted outdoor hockey events in the last three years.

"They're all special," said Chris Zimmerman, president and CEO of business operations for the Blues. "Wrigley Field, not a bad place despite the bad team that plays there. Fenway, the same. Obviously, those are two old, iconic stadiums. The fact that this has newer, more amenities, yet still has that feel of being part of the Cardinals' history is quite unique."

Tweet from @Cardinals: Less than one week until the puck drops for the 2017 #WinterClassic at Busch Stadium! pic.twitter.com/olpP5LvE0f

But before Busch Stadium can go on display, it first must be prepped. For most of the past 10 days, a crew of about a dozen workers have put in 16-to-18 hour shifts building the rink. It started with the load-in, after which the mobile refrigeration unit pumped approximately 3,000 gallons of glycol coolant into custom-made aluminum trays that will serve as the base of the rink.

The rink boards went in next, and the first layer of water was being poured a week ago. It took about 20,000 gallons of water to create the necessary two inches of ice thickness.

This week, Dan Craig, NHL's vice president of facilities operations, and his crew will whiten the top of the ice and paint the requisite logos and lines. The rink will be ready for use several days ahead of Monday's marquee event, and it can withstand any weather conditions that should arise.

Rain will freeze as quickly as it falls, and warm temperatures can be controlled by the refrigeration unit. A game last February at Coors Field, for instance, was played despite temperatures in the mid-60s.

The Winter Classic will be accompanied by a series of other events, beginning with Saturday's alumni game (1:30 p.m. CT). Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Bernie Federko, Adam Oates, Peter Stastny and Chris Pronger are among those scheduled to participate.

Ballpark Village will host a hockey-themed, pregame tailgate party on Saturday (9 a.m.-1:30 p.m.), Sunday (noon-4 p.m.) and Monday (9 a.m.-noon). Monday's event will be headlined by Grammy Award-winning artist Nelly. The St. Louis native is scheduled to perform at 10:30 a.m.

The Cardinals and Blues are also teaming up to host One Nation Classic, a closing ceremonies event to the Winter Classic. The event, which will take place at Busch Stadium on Jan. 8, will include a skills competition among Blues players, a pick-up hockey game featuring Stillman and DeWitt as captains and a hockey game between local police officers and firefighters. Former Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds and current bullpen coach Blaise Ilsley are among those committed to participating in the pick-up game.

"It's just going to be a tremendous event for St. Louis and to showcase St. Louis to the rest of the country. We can't wait to get started," Stillman said. "It really goes beyond just one game. It's a festival of hockey and sports and, in this case, a combination of Cardinals baseball in bringing this city together."

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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