The Leafs and the Raptors may be heading off to the fairways to relax, but their absence doesn’t mean their home will be going quiet. While they’re gone for the summer, the Air Canada Centre will be host to dozens of concerts and events—all of which will require the services of the building’s overnight conversion crew, the tireless team that takes the arena from hockey to basketball, from basketball to lacrosse, and from lacrosse to Lady Gaga. To find out just how they do it, we spent a night—all night—at the ACC, spoke to the management and crew, and took in an ice-to-court conversion.
To the casual observer, the hoodies the full-time crew wear might seem a bit ubiquitous: all black, emblazoned with the word “conversions” across the front, a white outline of a dragon on the chest, and a nickname along the hood. It’s the kind of custom apparel you’d expect from a rec-level sports team: it says camaraderie, while hinting at a shared inside joke.
Nobody knows we exist, members of the crew explain, laughing, as they describe the relationship they have with their daytime co-workers (or lack thereof). “When they leave it’s hockey, and when they come back it’s basketball. They don’t know how it gets done.” The job, they continue, is a mystery to most—which is why they decided on a dragon for the hoodie—a “mythical creature,” heard of, but never seen.
On an average night, the ACC has 20 to 25 unionized employees working a changeover, half full time, half part time. “It’s all labour intensive,” says Chris Jennings, the ACC’s overnight conversion supervisor. “If we don’t have the bodies, it just slows us down.”
The schedule is punishing. During the regular season, almost all of the ice-to-court conversions take place at night. When we stayed over in late March, the crew was looking at 11 conversions in 13 days—which, explains Brent Wynne, the ACC’s manager of facility services, “isn’t unusual.”
Photo by Miles Storey/Torontoist.
A typical night-time ice-to-court conversion begins at 10 p.m. and usually ends around 6 a.m. “You can trim it a bit,” explains Wynne. “But it’s pretty tight.” After the final whistle, the crew starts by cleaning the ice. A Zamboni then goes out and scrapes it, roughening up the surface so it’s easier to walk and drive on. Next, a team heads out with a forklift and starts to manually lay down what’s called ice deck—a black, inch-thick insulated sheeting that protects the ice, while keeping the cold in. When they’re on the court, explains Wynne, the basketball players are only about two to three inches away from the ice. “You could go out there in sock feet and walk from one end to the other, and you probably wouldn’t feel it. But if you stood there, you might start to feel [the cold].”
After the ice is covered and the deck is firmly in place, the crew starts removing the glass and boards, and drops the safety nets that hang behind the goals. At the same time, the seats in the west end are manually retracted, opening an entrance to the back storage area. The pitch and height of the seats in the east end are also realigned for basketball using an automated multi-million dollar spiral-lift system (a series of giant hydraulic Slinky-type things that move the seats up and down). The court is smaller than the ice surface, so when the ACC shifts into basketball mode, it gains about 1,000 seats, for a total of 19,800.
Next, the players’ benches and the penalty boxes are removed from the north and south sides, and seating units are dropped in their place. After installing additional manual seating sections on the east and west ends, the crew starts to put down the court. To make sure it’s straight, a chalk line is drawn on the deck as a guide, and a sledgehammer and block are used to tap the floor into alignment. The installation mirrors hardwood flooring, except the court sections are larger, and each piece is hooked into the one before it. In total, there are 195 sections of court, 13 deep and 15 across.
Once the court’s down, the basketball nets are installed and adjusted, and courtside seating is set up around the edges.
“Really, our challenge most of the time, is time, and just the number of conversions,” says Wynne. “We don’t have any room to make mistakes, and these guys have got it down to a fine art.”
Photo by Miles Storey/Torontoist.
Out of the sporting events the ACC regularly hosts, hockey to basketball conversions (and vice versa) are the easiest, as the crew has the most experience with them. Lacrosse to hockey takes the least time, as the boards and seating stay the same, while lacrosse to basketball takes the longest. And the worst? Arena football.
Back in the early aughts, Toronto had an arena football team called the Toronto Phantoms, which were based out of at the ACC. To do a conversion for football, the crew would have to retract the east and west end seating back to the wall, install turf right to the edges, and construct massive screens that hung from the ceiling. The whole process often took more than 10 hours. “Back in those days I was still working on the crew, and we hated them,” says Wynne. “It was ugly.”
Usually though, it’s the special event conversions that cause the most trouble. According to Wynne, back when the ACC opened in 1999 someone thought it would be a good idea to hold snocross in the arena (that “sport” where tricked-out snowmobiles race and go off jumps). Snocross, as one might guess, requires snow—tons of it. “When we converted back to hockey, the ice was destroyed,” he laughs. “We did it twice in the first two years, and we haven’t had it since.”
Concerts can also cause problems, particularly if the tour’s new and the setup hasn’t been tested, or if complex pyrotechnics are involved.
The crew’s biggest challenge to date came this year, in the form of the Junos. “We had a stage that actually went all the way into our storage area,” explains Jennings. “We nicknamed it “stagezilla.” It took three days to build it, and we had to send off all our equipment that wasn’t being used, just so they would have enough room.”
Unlike many sporting venues in North America, the Air Canada Centre doesn’t have much in the way of storage space—a trade-off for being downtown beside a highway, instead of out in the suburbs. To cope, every inch is used to its fullest, which means storing a lot of the equipment under the seating units. Still, the ACC’s space limitations don’t seem to be slowing it down.
“We probably average, in a good year, 20 to 22 conversions every month,” says Wynne. “Once we take the ice out it’s a bit different, because we’re not as busy, but for eight months it’s non-stop. People have no idea how busy we are.”
Photo by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.
Unless the Leafs make the playoffs—an event that’s now as mythical as the crew—the ice is usually removed sometime in early May, which, says Wynne, makes summer concert conversions a lot easier. The ice is then built up again in September over a three to four day period. “It’s just like you would do on a backyard rink with a hose, you build it layer by layer,” explains Wynne, adding that unlike most backyards, the ACC has a glycol piping system that runs under the ice to keep it frozen. And once the ice is in, it stays there till the end of the season.
During a conversion, the Air Canada Centre feels like a different place. Games are loud and raucous affairs, while changeovers, though not exactly quiet, are eerily calm. (At least the one we experienced was.) So much so, that when you’re standing on the ice deck you start to notice other sights…and smells.
For one, the floor reeks of sweat—especially near the players benches, which are just gross in general: littered with junk food, discarded surgical gloves, and bloody tissues. The basketball nets also stink of sweat, which suggests that they’re not cleaned very often.
Not surprisingly, sports fans are filthy, filthy creatures. Beneath the spiral-lift seating system in the east end, we discovered hundreds of discarded peanut shells, wads of gum, mountains of popcorn, and lots and lots of spilt beer. If you walk under the seats during the game, says Wynne, there’s a good chance that you’re going to get hit by a “beer shower.”
Speaking of food, each night the ACC throws out dump trucks worth of it, much of which is perfectly good. There’s always “lots of untouched leftovers,” says Jennings, especially in the corporate boxes, the media gondola, and the players’ rooms. Thus, every game night, the conversion crew goes on the hunt for free food. Rarely do they come back empty handed. A few weeks ago, laughs Jennings, Rick Mercer came to do a conversion story, and when he ate cold pizza with us at 3 a.m., we knew he was “one of us.” (We didn’t find any pizza during our stay, but we were treated to leftover pasta and salmon, courtesy of the Buffalo Sabres.)
Perks aside, the job, says the crew, comes with sacrifices. “It’s tough on the body,” it’s hard on “relationships,” and it “kills your social life,” they explain. That said, it’s a job they still like.
“I’ve worked with these guys for 20 years,” says Wynne, who started his career in 1980 at the Gardens sweeping the stands part time. “Even though I’m their boss now, I’ve worked with them, I know their work ethic…odds are, that I’m not getting a call at 3 a.m.”
“We haven’t missed an event yet,” adds Jennings. “And we don’t plan on it. We know that the show must go on.”
Video shot by Miles Storey and Christopher Drost; produced by Miles Storey.