Local Meteorologists Helped Save Winter Classic
Bridgeville weather gurus made sure outdoor game was a primetime success
The smashing primetime success that was the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh may have never happened if not for the forecasting skills of a small meteorological center in Bridgeville.
Three weather gurus working at Air Science Consultants Inc. were hired by the National Hockey League to monitor weather conditions in the weeks leading up to the outdoor hockey game on New Year’s Day. And with temperatures hovering in the low 50s and rain throughout game day, the Winter Classic at Heinz Field appeared to be jeopardy.
Although ASC Inc. didn’t make the decision to push the game back to an 8 p.m. start – a move that helped set a modern record for viewership of a hockey game – the meteorologists provided the NHL with critical data that spurred the change.
“They need (constant forecasts) especially for insurance purposes in case they can’t hold it or it needs to be delayed. They would have incurred heavy losses,” said Stanley Penkala, president of ASC Inc. “It got pretty detailed because people on the field and ice were looking at our measurements every 15 minutes.”
The 30-year-old company, which is located in a small, unassuming building on Prestley Road in the borough, set up weather equipment at Heinz Field immediately after the Steelers defeated the Carolina Panthers on Dec. 23. They constantly watched the data as the NHL worked to build the ice rink and made contingency plans for the game.
Although ASC Inc. has a wide range of clients, it also has worked for both the Steelers and Pirates, so the magnitude of the national sporting event did not faze the meteorologists.
“We weren’t doing anything differently than we do for any of our other clients,” meteorologist Dennis Sims said. “I treated it that way so I wouldn’t feel that pressure. But down deep, there was still a lot of pressure.”
The most critical measurements came within 24 hours of the scheduled start time. Daniel Krzywiecki the company’s chief meteorologist, said the scope of their work changed as the hockey game neared.
“It evolved over the length of our involvement,” Krzywiecki. “As the event approached, outcasting became the predominate concern.”
Sims added that they were no longer looking at the “big picture” and instead focusing on the specific conditions leading up to the game. Those conditions forced the NHL to move the start time back seven hours and into primetime.
“I think they were just looking at the consistency of the forecast,” Sims said. “It didn’t really change between Christmas and the event; warm and rainy.”
But even when the game started in its new nighttime slot, their work wasn’t finished. During the game, Sims said the three sat in the “bowels of Heinz Field” that was dubbed the “NHL Weather Center.”
They watched the game on a flat screen television while also keeping an eye on their weather data that was streaming into the room. There, they were able to deliver critical information about impending showers that eventually made the rink look more like a shallow pond.
“We were in constant contact with the events manager,” Sims said. “We were able to give them a heads up that it was going to rain a little harder (in the third period).”
But all of them brushed off any assertions that they saved the Winter Classic for Pittsburgh.
“We gave them our best take on the weather, and they made the best decision based on that,” Penkala said.