From Force to hockey
Arena works hard to switch floor in less than 3 hours

DULUTH - Crew and staff gathered in the lower hallways of the Arena at Gwinnett Center, a swarm ready to descend as soon as the final second ticked off the clock.

The Georgia Force game ended at 3:47 p.m. Saturday. At 3:49 p.m., as soon as the majority of the arena football teams' players scurried off the field, crew members began the process of transforming the place into a hockey rink.

The ECHL's Gwinnett Gladiators had a 7:35 p.m. start scheduled - a game that was set before the Force decided to make the Arena at Gwinnett Center their home again after a three-year stint playing downtown.

A process that normally takes six to eight hours had to happen in less than three.

The doors open for hockey games an hour before puck drop. It wasn't just a switch from turf to ice. It was a hundred details that had to be taken care of in less than half the time. The stands had to be cleared of trash. The bathrooms and the suites had to be cleaned. The concessions had to be restocked. The locker rooms had to be taken care of.

"Everything has to be clean just like it was if this (the Force game) hadn't happened," Gwinnett Arena General Manager Preston Williams said as he sat in the stands to observe the conversion process. "When the Gladiator fans come in at 6:30, it needs to be like it always is, like they never knew an arena football game was here."

To accommodate the first professional doubleheader at the arena, the staff and crew was tripled.

"I've actually done it before, not here, at other buildings," Williams said. "Particularly basketball and hockey in the same day."

Five minutes after the Force lost to the Dallas Desperados, the padding was being removed from the half walls. Automatic drills ground bolts out as the end boards were changed from square to curved.

"Let's move it," was being shouted by a supervisor even before the last player jogged to the locker room.

At 3:54, cleaning crews streamed into the stands, armed with plastic trash bags, brooms and mops.

By 3:55, they were beginning to peel up the turf and deconstruct the massive double-sided goal posts. They hauled away double stacked pieces of subflooring and at 4 p.m. the sheets of glass were being laid out along the boards.

Ten minutes later, the new end boards were being drilled into place, even as AFL personnel were still collecting hundreds of yards of cable.

While the goal posts were lowered to the floor, the graphics ribbon board just below club level said "The Arena at Gwinnett Center: Home of the Gwinnett Gladiators and Georgia Force." Logos for both teams faded in and out. That was beginning to look true.

At 4:15, unwieldy rolls of turf were being hauled away. Security personnel, who usually guard the hallways during games, lent a hand in the process. The arena's director of technical services, Neil Humphreys, and John Martin - the man charged with maintaining the arena's ice surface - were also out on the floor helping get the place turned around.

A day before the event, Gladiators General Manager Steve Chapman's main concern was not if the floor could be changed over in time, but would the arena be as shiny and clean as it usually is.

"I told them two or three times it's a huge game and we're expecting a huge crowd," Chapman said on Friday.

But he trusted the arena staff, who he said runs a smooth operation and pointed out that many facilities around the country are able to hold two sporting events in one day.

"Reading (Pa.) shares its arena with a basketball team and share three Saturdays," Chapman said. "This isn't unprecedented."

An hour after the Force game ended, the last rolls of turf were coming up and at 5:15 p.m., the glass was halfway installed. Two hours after the final horn, three-quarters of the ice was uncovered.

By the time the first fan entered, the arena and the ice were ready.

Chapman said he was impressed with the turnaround.

The Force announced an attendance of 10,224 for their game (though for an arena that holds a little more than 11,000, there were quite a few open seats showing). The Gladiators had a crowded house as well with 10,342 patrons, which means somewhere around 20,000 fans ate, drank and took in a game (or games) on Saturday at the Gwinnett Arena.

"For this crew, for the first time they've ever done it, they're doing real, real good," Williams said while things were still in full swing Saturday afternoon. "I'm real proud of them. They put a real good plan together. They've been working on the plan and timelines for things for the last month or so.

"You don't just throw it together."