By Deron Snyder
ESTERO, Fla. – As the final seconds ticked away Saturday afternoon in the Florida Flame’s 124-115 basketball victory at Germain Arena, Jason Chieppo walked hurriedly around the arena floor, conducting his own countdown.
The ECHL’s Florida Everblades were scheduled to play the Louisiana IceGators at 7:30 p.m., about five hours after the Flame’s game ended. Since hardwood floors aren’t conducive to ice hockey, Germain had to undergo a changeover in time for the pre-game skate, at 6:30 p.m.
So Chieppo, the arena’s operations manager, actually had about four hours to complete a process that normally takes six hours.
But he wasn’t worried. Instead of the usual eight-person crew, he lined up 25 workers for Germain’s unprecedented doubleheader, basketball and hockey on the same day. He said preparations were made for about 10 doubleheaders in the past, to accommodate playoff appearances by the Everblades and now-defunct Florida Sea Dragons of the United States Basketball League.
“It never happened because the Blades never went that far,” Chieppo said.
The changeover began immediately after the buzzer. Several workers started disassembling the courtside seats. Others started dismantling the scorer’s table. Empty carts were brought in to roll away the basketball court and the insulated pads beneath it, while carts loaded with protective glass were brought in.
Just minutes after the Flame and Roanoke Dazzle headed toward their lockers, the Germain Arena floor bustled with activity.
“There’s nothing really challenging about it because we do it so much,” assistant operations manager Randy Klinck said. “This is just unique because we have a deadline to do it in such a short period of time.”
Chieppo said the changeover normally occurs in the wee hours, typically after the National Basketball Development League’s Flame plays a night game. A crew of about eight starts at 11 p.m. and works until 5 a.m.
“We take our time,” he said. “But there’s only so fast you can go.”
Chieppo came up with a four-hour budget, what he considered the worst-case scenario for completing the task. But it took just two hours to clear the floor and reveal the ice, which required another hour or so of preparation.
“That was great,” said Steve St. Jean, Germain’s vice-president of operations, who was back in his suit and tie. St. Jean had worked on the glass detail during the changeover.
“Safety first, that’s my biggest concern,” St. Jean said. “It wasn’t whether we were going to get it done, but get it done and with nobody getting hurt. You’ve got forklifts running around and all kinds of things going on. It’s just a matter of everyone being conscious of what’s going on around them.”
St. Jean said he wanted to schedule a basketball-hockey doubleheader, and ran the idea past the Flame and the Everblades.
“It’s never been done here before and it was something I wanted to try,” he said. “I thought maybe both teams could feed off it.”
There was plenty of energy to feed off during the changeover. Chieppo canvassed the arena floor with a power drill, barking out instructions and encouraging the crew to move quickly.
“Let’s go, let’s go; get it out of here!” he said, as workers removed the court. “Let’s go!”
The last stack of floor pads was fork-lifted off the arena floor at 4:44 p.m. The ice was dirty, covered with tire tracks and scraps of paper. But the Zamboni came out and shortly thereafter created the sleek, shiny surface that the Blades and their fans are accustomed to.
They’d never know a basketball game had ended just five hours earlier.
“It felt great,” Chieppo said. “It felt great to orchestrate 25 people and get the job done in two hours. It went too good, to be honest. But I slept like a baby last night because I knew I had guys who could do it.”