The work never stops for Verizon Center’s changeover crew, so shortly before midnight on April 5, the 26-member team began its latest shift after the Washington Capitals defeated the New York Rangers in a late-season game.
In three days, the Capitals would return to the District for their regular season finale — hopefully to hard, slick ice. But until then, Verizon Center would transform four times for four events.
There was a stage to build for a John Mayer concert on Thursday night, and then a field for the venue’s newest tenant — the Washington Valor of the Arena Football League, which played its inaugural game at Verizon Center on Friday.
It was just the third time the changeover crew had assembled the indoor football field, but there was no time to dwell on that accomplishment: By Saturday morning, there was a hardwood to lay down as the Washington Wizards returned home to face the Miami Heat.
By the early morning hours of Sunday morning, the basketball court had been displaced and stacked. An inch-thick, insulated fiberglass-and-foam deck had been rolled up to once again reveal the ice, which needed touch-ups before the Capitals returned for their regular season finale that night against the Florida Panthers.
“People always ask, so where’s the ice? What’s this? How does it get transformed?” said Dave Touhey, who oversees facilities operations as president of venues of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the ownership group of the Capitals, Wizards, Valor and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. “I think people don’t think about it, because when you’re at a restaurant, you don’t think about how long the sous chef has been slicing vegetables, either. You just know the quality of the meal.”
The quality of the ice at Verizon Center will be magnified as the Capitals begin the NHL playoffs on Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ice conditions have long been a hot-button issue for the NHL, including this season, when a December game in Raleigh, N.C., between the Carolina Hurricanes and Detroit Red Wings was postponed because of an unplayable surface.
Barclays Center in Brooklyn, home of the New York Islanders, faced criticism for its quality of ice earlier this season, and another game in Pittsburgh was delayed in January because of a crater that was found in the playing surface.
While Verizon Center has not endured any of those kind of public relations nightmares, Touhey said last week that he and his staff constantly monitor the temperatures inside and outside the building.
The rising springtime temperatures, especially in a humid climate such as in Washington, can pose a threat to the quality of the ice. Part of the process is controlling the arena’s airlock system, which Touhey calls “standard operating procedure.”
“The difference between February and April is that you run more air conditioning,” Touhey said. “We’re always tracking the temperature inside and outside. In the middle of winter, you can use outside air, if it’s cool enough. Whereas in April and May, when it’s warmer out, you use more controlled air. It’s no different than when we started in September.”
In a 2015 poll conducted by Yahoo Sports, 27 NHL players were asked which arena had the worst home ice. Florida received the most votes with 12, with the warm-weather homes of the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and Tampa Bay Lightning each receiving three votes. One player said Washington had the worst ice.
Capitals forward Daniel Winnik said last week that Verizon Center’s ice has been “pretty good this year compared to last year” but added that there isn’t a clear-cut difference in conditions between the regular season and playoffs.
“Honestly there’s not a lot of difference. The ice is . . . some buildings, yeah. If it’s humid out, that’s when it’s a problem,” Winnik said. “But a lot of the time, to be honest, ice quality in the NHL isn’t that great to begin with.”
Converting the ice to hardwood courts for the Wizards, who begin the NBA playoffs this weekend, and the Mystics, whose regular season begins on May 14, is considered “clockwork,” according to Jordan Silberman, vice president of operations for Verizon Center. Adding a third playing surface to the rotation with the Valor, which will play its second home game on April 22, is not expected to have any kind of impact on preparation for Capitals playoff games. But it took a trial run to install this past fall, and it has added another logistical piece to the arena’s storage facility in suburban Forestville.
“It’s like getting a set of Ikea furniture without the instructions. And it’s kind of just figuring out how to put everything together,” Silberman said. “We got the [football] field, the dasher pads and the goal posts, with basically just a picture of how it was set up in another facility. And you have to figure out how to put it all together.”
The changeover crew is led by Kim Webster, who has been working in the profession for 42 years. It also includes a group of veterans who have cut their teeth in arena management for more than 20 years, including some who used to work events in the old Capital Centre in Landover, where the Capitals played until 1997.
“It’s just like second nature for them,” Silberman said.
The arena management world is small, and Touhey considers the crews in places such as Philadelphia and Cleveland — where there are also venues that juggle hockey, basketball and indoor football — as close friends. He has also consulted with those management groups at times.
Building the arena football field “is not some major feat” on top of the rest of the crews’ responsibilities, Touhey said, and he played down the notion that there is more pressure to maintain the ice during this time of year.
The arena hosts an average of 220 events per year, although that number could balloon depending on how far its tenants advance in the playoffs.
The in-game management of the ice might be more complex than that of a basketball court or carpeted football field, but the changeover crew doesn’t treat it any differently from any of the other early-morning operations.
They will have another one on Wednesday night into Thursday morning — each conversion takes roughly six to eight hours — where they will transform a concert stage for the Red Hot Chili Peppers back to the ice in time for the Capitals’ playoff opener.
“The changeover crews are the engine of this building,” Touhey said. “They are the ones that are the least seen, because they work mostly overnight. But they are what makes the building move along.”
Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.