They think of themselves as elves, working away in the wee hours when no one is watching. They convert an NHL hockey surface into an NBA basketball court in a single night's work, and they're long gone before the first sneaker hits the floor at morning shootaround.
It's no secret that stadiums can be switched from hockey to basketball or vice versa overnight, but few sports fans could tell you how it's actually done. The conversion crew at Toronto's Air Canada Centre has it down to a science.
It's 10:30 p.m. Sunday, and a full house of passionate fans in blue and white just watched the Washington Capitals end the Toronto Maple Leafs' out-of-nowhere playoff run in Game 6. The fans spill out into the streets and funnel on to trains, sad to see the inspired season end, but optimistic about the future. The ACC conversion crew is already jumping to action. It will take them about seven hours to flip this place for Monday night's Game 5 between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks.
"There is zero margin for error," said Nick Eaves, chief venues and operations officer at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), which owns both the Leafs and Raptors teams and the ACC. "We've never missed a conversion yet."
Cleaning crews scatter throughout the building, sweeping up the night's beer cups, spilled popcorn and forgotten rally towels, and mopping. Cleaning every row, suite, bathroom, concourse and restaurant in this three-level stadium will take all night.
The Zamboni comes out to give the ice a light flood – not the sort the operator would give if there was another overtime period to play. The 200-foot by 85-foot ice surface will remain beneath the 94-foot by 50-foot basketball court. So the operator uses just enough water to make the thin plastic decking tiles stick better. Those tiles will cover, insulate and protect the 1-1/2-inch thick ice surface so it can be uncovered again on Tuesday if the Leafs want to do an end-of-season photo session.
Large sections of thin black decking are brought out on forklifts, and the close-knit conversion crew of some 24 workers first takes a moment for some on-ice team photos of their own after a memorable Leafs season. Then they swiftly lay the decking like a giant puzzle, covering the whole ice surface in less than an hour. Above them, hockey reporters are still writing their game stories in the Foster Hewitt Media Gondola.
Hockey seating in both ends of the lower bowl – behind where the hockey nets would be – are flipped down into the floor, like the back seats in a minivan. They're then collapsed backwards in big sections like stands in a high-school gymnasium, and wheeled away in big sections. Once they're gone, a loading door is revealed in the west end under section 113 – that's where the planks of hardwood and sections of court-side seating will enter later in the night.
"Because everything has to come from the west end, the east end will complete first," said Vince Bozzo, head of venue operations at the ACC . "Then the basketball court is built while the west end is done."
Seating in the east and west areas is telescopic – and since the basketball surface is smaller, the seats come in further to come closer to the hardwood than they would to fit back around the hockey boards. Those will be the behind-the-basket sections where fans will holler and wave thunder sticks while the Bucks try to shoot their free-throws. That whole section gets elevated, providing storage areas underneath.
Every bit of hockey material that is removed is labeled or numbered and put away in an organized fashion so it be retrieved as easily as possible.
Around midnight, the glass comes out of the boards and each slab – which includes small holes cut in the glass for photographers at ice level – is placed delicately on a standing dolly to be forklifted into the wings. The two hockey benches leave in chunks too, as do the corner segments of the boards where the Caps and Leafs did so much battling.
The side hockey boards remain but get disguised in black drapery. They're hardly noticed once a few rows of premium court-level seating are placed in front of them. Sunday's hockey game had 18,800 seats in place while Monday's basketball game will have 19,800.
An expert bit of synchronicity between crew members gets the netting put away that protects fans from flying pucks. It's lowered to the ground by pullies suspended from the ceiling as 10 crew members work in unison to wrap it up and fasten it with ties. Narrow overhead sections of steel caging on both ends are then lowered by the pullies, and the rolled-up netting is placed inside, to be raised back up to the rafters and stored cleverly out of the way.
When the court installation starts by 3:30 a.m., things are right on track. Things usually go smoothly, but the unforeseen could happen – a forklift can break down, a snowstorm can make guys late for work, a piece of the ice surface can get damaged by some equipment.
Large rectangular pieces of the court are trucked in by forklift, and assembled together quickly. The red painted sideline that Raptors coach Dwane Casey patrols is the first part of flooring laid, followed by the recognizable high-polished blond hardwood, all banged together with a mallet. The line markings and logos all quickly become visible.
"If the court isn't precisely put in place, the overhead projection we use to project things on the court during games would be askew," said Bozzo. "Even one-eighth of an inch would make a huge difference in how the projection looks."
As soon as that edge is ready, others get to work quickly laying in the items that sit snug to the perimeter – player seating, the scorer's table and a spot for broadcasters such as Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong. They add comfy court-side seats – like those where Kyle Lowry's wife Ayahna often sits with their son Karter.
The basket comes in on a forklift, folded down for storage like a stroller or a piece of exercise equipment. It's put in place then sprung open. Meanwhile, the supervisor walks the floor and inspects every seam to make sure there are no snags that a player could catch with a shoe. Between sports, concerts and other events, this crew does between 185 to 200 conversions each year, but attention to every detail is still crucial every night.
"We're like a basketball team or a hockey team – some nights things go more smoothly than other nights, and we sometimes feel the grind around February, but we still have to get the job done every night, no matter what," said Frank Orovits, supervisor of conversions. "For 10 years we were used to the work slowing right down in April, when the teams weren't making the playoffs and some guys would go off to other jobs. But this is exciting, and we've been putting in lots of hours."
The temperature of the bowl and the relative humidity have to be carefully monitored to keep the hardwood in optimal playing shape. In the switch from hockey to basketball, the temperature is slowly elevated in the morning hours so that the Bucks and Raptors will be comfortable when they arrive for their morning shootarounds.
One of the final touches will be the playoff shirts, placed on seats, awaiting the next wave of passionate fans.