Backed by dump trucks and loaders, dozens of workers hoisting shovels and blowers attacked the snowdrifts covering the University of Minnesota's stadium Wednesday in a determined push to have it ready to replace the snow-damaged Metrodome for Monday night's game between the Vikings and Bears.
As the work began in earnest, NFL officials toured TCF Bank Stadium to make sure it was safe for fans and meets other league requirements. The two biggest concerns, according to assistant university athletic director Scott Ellison, were whether all the snow can be removed in time and whether the frozen field could be softened to a level that won't hurt the players.
"I'm completely confident we can have a game here Monday night," Ellison said after crews had already removed 26 truckloads of snow and totally cleared 17 of the 52 seating sections.
A fourth panel in the Metrodome's inflatable roof tore open at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, dumping snow and ice on the field, Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission spokesman Pat Milan said. No one was hurt, and all the workers were pulled from the stadium floor. Crews will inspect the damage Thursday.
Engineers from Birdair Inc., the Amherst, N.Y.-based manufacturer of the Metrodome's roof, discovered damage Tuesday that was worse than initially expected. The company gave the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the owner of the dome, two options to repair the damage: Mending the torn panels, a short-term solution that would leave the panels still needing to be replaced, or replacing the panels with new material, a more long-term solution that would also be more time-consuming.
Milan said cold temperatures were slowing repairs and that it could be three to seven days before a timeline emerges for using the Metrodome again. The question is largely moot for the Vikings, because the game against the Bears is the home finale and Minnesota won't make the playoffs.
Ellison said the NFL was developing a plan to treat the college field with warming chemicals to soften it, and looking into laying a tarp that would have some type of heating element underneath.
"We're confident. We're optimistic," Vikings owner Zygi Wilf said. "A lot of people are working very hard to get it done. But we want to assure the fans in the Twin Cities and all of Minnesota that we're going to have a game in Minnesota and celebrate our 50th anniversary, and (have) a dinner beforehand honouring the top 50 players. I look forward to being back outdoors the way I was always used to watching games and enjoying games."
The NFL will make the final call on where the game will be played. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Associated Press that "we support the plan to play the game at the University of Minnesota stadium and are assisting the Vikings and the university on preparations."
Commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday he already was planning on attending the Bears-Vikings game, and will keep those plans.
"I think it will be a great experience for the fans, for the NFL," Goodell said. "It's something that we would rather not have happen. The fortunate thing is that nobody was hurt. But the safety of our facilities is important to us."
The Vikings decided to hold the game at the home of the Golden Gophers after inspectors said there wasn't enough time to repair the dome's tattered and deflated roof. It fell early Sunday under the weight of about 43 centimetres of freshly fallen snow, forcing the Vikings to play the Giants in Detroit last Monday.
University officials promised 16-hour days of plowing and shovelling - they asked for volunteers to work Thursday through Sunday - and were nervously eyeing a forecast that called for the possibility of another few inches of snow by Thursday night. Inside the stadium, workers shovelled snow onto long slides that snaked down the bleachers and poured it onto the field, where loaders scooped it into dump trucks.
Ellison said the goal was to have the stadium game-ready by the end of the day Sunday.
School officials, the Vikings and the NFL were negotiating many other logistical questions, from whether beer would be available at the normally dry stadium (undecided) to how a 50,000-seat stadium could accommodate Vikings' 54,000 season-ticket holders (unclear).
The team said it was "working to accommodate fans' questions" but acknowledged it would take time to get the answers in such a "fluid situation." Ellison said the school was looking into setting up more seats for the game - the Metrodome has a football seating capacity of about 63,000.
Ellison said that owners of the Gophers stadium's 38 luxury suites would have first right to use them.
The outdoor game will be a test for Minnesotans no longer accustomed to braving the frigid December air to watch pro football. The last outdoor Vikings game at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, which the Metrodome replaced, was held on Dec. 20, 1981 - 29 years to the day before the Vikings-Bears matchup.
Wolter said it was not clear how much it will cost to get TCF Bank Stadium ready for the game and then to host it. He said the Vikings vowed to cover the entire tab, and that the school has a budget of US$250,000 for each Gophers game. The total cost with all preparations could reach $700,000 or more, he said.
Workers at the campus stadium Wednesday were hired through temporary agencies, but as of Thursday the school planned to pay $10 an hour to anyone who showed up outside the stadium willing to work.
Quintin Spencer of Minneapolis was manning a shovel in the parking lot of the Gopher stadium, helping empty the trucks carrying snow from inside the stadium. The 43-year-old said he's been out of a steady job for several years and was happy to get paid for helping make a Vikings home game possible.
"That's a real good thing," Spencer said. "I just hope they win, so that a part of this memory is that they won the game."
Asked whether the collapse could help speed plans for a new stadium, Wilf said: "I've always advocated to have a new facility and right now we're making sure we get this venue ready this week, then we'll talk about addressing those issues as they come up."
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