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The Region

Change of Venue Is Overnight Sensation

Crew makes quick work of transforming the Pond from hockey rink to Sweet 16 showcase.

March 26, 2003|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

If there are ghosts that haunt the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim at night, they are these men, 25 in all. While the rest of the world is sleeping, the men -- they call themselves the "conversion crew" -- transform the arena into a hockey rink or a basketball court, rodeo grounds or a concert hall, all in the span of a single work shift.

The crew worked quickly and precisely Monday night and Tuesday morning to install the basketball court for the Sweet 16 round of West Region matchups of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The Pond will play host to about 55,000 visitors and four of the nation's best college teams. Arizona, Duke, Notre Dame and Kansas play Thursday. The winners of those two games play again Saturday to determine which one advances to the Final Four in New Orleans, where the nation's best college basketball team will eventually be crowned.

Brian Landcraft, 36, of Anaheim clocked in about 10 p.m. Monday just as the Mighty Ducks left the ice and fans headed home in droves.

"We're vampires," Landcraft said. "We don't come out during the day. We only come out at night."

They hit the ice armed with forklifts, a cartful of tools and a diagram of the Pond detailing everything from the seating configuration to the press tables. Their goal? To be done by 8 a.m.

These men are matter-of-fact. They know their jobs. They know the order and the technique, how each piece fits together.

"My job is just to get the job done," said conversion supervisor Jose Granados.

On this night, it won't be easy. His first snag hits before they've even started.

By 10 p.m., only a skeleton crew of a dozen or so men have arrived, and several are first-timers. A few more guys trickle in, but Granados must tap the cleanup crew to fill his staff.

The new folks are excited, but they have little concept of the hard work that lies ahead. The veterans shake their heads and chuckle.

"They're going to sleep like babies tonight," says Alfonso Alvarez, one of the supervisors.

This is manual labor. Heavy lifting and bending, pounding and tugging -- work that can be torture on backs and knees.

The first task is to lay down rubber-coated plywood over the ice. There are more than 100 pieces, many of them numbered so they can be assembled like a jumbo jigsaw puzzle.

Simultaneously, another group of workers takes down 123 plexiglass panels that rim the ice hockey rink. Each piece stands either 6 or 8 feet high and weighs 40 to 50 pounds.

The hardest job is putting down the basketball court itself, composed of 210 maple panels that weigh 180 pounds each. The panels interlock and must be bolted into place.

"Anybody who comes in here and sees it takes it for granted," said operations manager Brent Mater. "Everyone's got their own responsibilities. It's teamwork, teamwork at its finest."

There are other tasks such as reconfiguring the bleachers, laying carpet, setting up the basketball hoops and draping the dashers with black bunting.

Each job comes with its own peculiarities. The NCAA, for example, ordered all corporate advertising in the Pond covered and a blue carpet to circle the court. Any mention of the Ducks had to be covered too.

By 8 a.m., the job is nearly complete. Half the conversion crew has left, most for their day jobs. Only the hardy remain, but even their pace has slowed.

"I'm hurting right now," said first-timer Steve Robacker, 20, of Buena Park. "My body aches, just all over."

Jason Whitcher, 32, of Anaheim laughs and says, "It's harder to pick the floor up than to put it down. They're new. They just don't know that yet."

Alvarez predicts that half of the new guys won't be back, but others can't seem to leave.

Ed Vaclavik, 44, the only original crew member, jokes that he's worked at the Pond "too long." He will celebrate his 10-year anniversary in a couple of months.

The payoff is watching the place transform overnight, Vaclavik said, knowing he played a role and that -- after the work is done -- he can peek in from the sidelines to see the crowds cheering on the Mighty Ducks or Tina Turner or Paul McCartney.

"It's cool to see 13,000 or 15,000 people enjoying themselves," Vaclavik said. "That's really the best reward: seeing a lot of people have a good time."

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