Dan Craig, longtime ice guru in charge of more than 30 outdoor NHL games, can hardly contain his enthusiasm surveying his latest creation — a pond hockey surface outside the New York Islanders home arena at Belmont Park.
The Park at UBS Arena is a season-long outdoor ice experience and Craig’s fresh sheet of ice is reminiscent of hockey’s purest form.
“It’s for the kids, so we can get the younger generation out here,’’ Craig said about the 120-foot-by-60-foot rink which features low-slung boards and easy access for cleaning crews with snow shovels. “It’s about the community and the kids. That’s the whole premise for me.”
The Islanders this week unveiled Northwell Pond which will host 4-on-4 hockey tournaments for youth and adults. Isles Pond nearby will host “Learn to Skate,” “Learn to Play” and “Try Hockey for Free” programs on synthetic ice.
The Park was largely the idea of John Collins, who joined the Islanders following last season to oversee business operations. Collins also helped the NHL manifest the outdoor game phenomenon. The first Winter Classic was Jan. 1, 2008 between Buffalo and Pittsburgh in upstate New York and has become annual event played the first day of every calendar year. Collins also was a senior executive at the NFL.
“We’ve done this with outdoor hockey games and Super Bowls. It’s a grand way to celebrate the community,’’ Collins said, alluding to the winter festival vibe outside UBS that includes small fire pits, heated igloos, carnival games and food trucks. “I want to see it packed for a Stanley Cup playoff watch party.”
Collins was joined on Friday by Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky, President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Lou Lamoriello and Hall of Famers Denis Potvin and Billy Smith for a ceremonial puck drop on the synthetic ice surface before the Islanders hosted the Washington Capitals.
“So many Canadian guys grew up in this pond hockey environment,’’ said Potvin, the defenseman who captained the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83. “I can relate.”
Former Islander Pat LaFontaine, who toured the Park before Wednesday’s Islanders-Penguins game, fondly remembers skating on frozen Williams Lake just outside his childhood home in Michigan. His father John helped create pond hockey magic for the future Hall of Fame center and LaFontaine hopes the new outdoor scene brings that same excitement to a new generation of fans.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind experience,” said LaFontaine, who joined the Islanders straight from the 1984 Winter Olympics and played on Long Island until 1991. “Come and enjoy and celebrate your team. Go for a skate, go to the beer garden, play some games at the carnival, and then go watch a hockey game.”
Smith, the cantankerous netminder who was 57-13 in playoff games during the dynasty years, offered an especially practical benefit for The Park.
“It’s great having stuff to do outside. People can come early to park, and then have fun,’’ he said. “Because everyone knows about the New York traffic.”
And with historic Belmont Park — which dates to 1905 — undergoing a major renovation over the next two years, Collins also is mulling a future Winter Classic on Long Island.
“We’ll see what happens,’’ Collins said.
Ledecky added that The Park could be the necessary impetus for larger-scale events hosted by the Islanders.
“It’s being noticed by the NHL community. That’s important because if you want to have an All-Star game or Winter Classic, they want to see creativity,’’ he said. “They want to see something special.”