WASHINGTON — On Saturday night, fans will exit the Verizon Center following the Washington Capitals’ Game 2 matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Whenever the game ends, the arena will empty out and a familiar transformation will begin. Verizon Center staff will cover the rink, deconstruct the boards, and lay down the hardwood and baskets for the 1 p.m. Sunday tipoff for Game 1 between the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks.
It won’t even be the most challenging changeover the crew has made this month.
With 41 regular season Caps and Wizards home games, not to mention preseason and, in years like this one, playoffs, the Verizon Center’s operations crew is well-versed in flipping the venue to and from basketball and hockey constructions. A staff of about 30 full-timers and another eight to 10 part-timers takes somewhere between six and eight hours to convert the arena, depending on which event is up next.
There are 115 sheets of insulated floor over that cover the ice; 14 rows of 75 individual pieces of wood for the basketball floor; and 15 rolls of turf carpet to prep for the first season of the new Washington Valor Arena Football League field.
“Last year, we had 95 events in 70 days,” said Dave Touhey, president of venues for Monumental Sports & Entertainment. “That was a really busy stretch.”
Just last week, the Caps played a Wednesday night home game, which was followed by a John Mayer concert Thursday night, the first-ever Valor game Friday evening, the Capitol Classic Saturday afternoon, a Wizards game Saturday night, and finally, another Caps game Sunday.
“Last week was definitely a busy run,” Touhey said. “But we have runs where we do a concert, a game, and then two games on the Saturday, then a game Sunday afternoon, and then another game Monday.”
To an outside observer, it may seem like the transition into and out of a hockey game might be the toughest, but that isn’t actually the case.
“Hockey is actually one of the easiest,” said Jordan Silberman, vice president of operations for MSE. “You’ve got the floor clear, basically, so there’s not that much that has to happen down there. Every (event) has its little nuances that make it more difficult in different aspects.”
The toughest to prepare for are the one-off events, such as the circus or monster truck rallies, which require a non-routine setup. There are actually staff members trained for the specific surfaces that are used regularly: the ice guys who drive the Olympia ice resurfacers, or the basketball guys trained in ensuring the basketball floor is up to snuff.
“In-house, we have guys that specialize in taking care of different components of the events, and then we supplement with contractors to do the specialty things,” Touhey said.
One of those specialty things? The flames that erupt from atop the baskets during introductions and other moments for Wizards games. That means that before every Wizards game, a pyrotechnic specialist comes in to help get the flamethrowers up and running again.
The real crunch comes not from the day-to-day turnover, but when notice is short on what needs to be done. During last year’s blizzard, the crew did a full changeover from a concert setup to a hockey setup, only to have the NHL cancel the game, launching them into a basketball setup for the next day.
“It’s really a 24-hour operation,” Silberman said. “As soon as the changeover crew leaves, another crew comes in and does all the little ancillary setup that has to happen to make sure the clocks are set up and the baskets are set. And then we have a crew that comes in about 3 o’clock in the afternoon that makes sure that the game goes off without a hitch and responds to any calls as necessary.”
If either the Wizards or Caps advance to the second round of the playoffs, the crew won’t get the nearly weeklong heads up they got for the opening round, either.
“If a series goes seven games, sometimes we’re having the first game of the next series on 48 hours’ notice,” Touhey said.
And they may have another challenge even sooner than that: A Chris Brown concert is scheduled for next Friday night, April 21, the same night as a potential Game 5 of the Caps-Maple Leafs series. The contingency plan won’t go into effect until/if both teams win a game in the series, guaranteeing it would go at least five games. But Silberman says the leagues take precedence in such situations.
No matter what happens next Friday, the crew will have to be ready afterward to tear it all down again: There’s another Valor home game the following night.