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Engineering a successful night at GM Place

by Derek Jory
As unusual as it sounds, Celine Dion, Neil Young and Bob Dylan all could play a role in determining the outcome of this Saturday night's game between the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks at GM Place.  

These musicians won't be taking the ice, but their presence in Vancouver during the week leading up to this Northwest Division game might be felt by the players during the game. 

Al Hutchings and Mark Wohl are two of the people in charge of ensuring that it is business as usual Saturday -- a tall task considering the transformations GM Place has been through in the last few days.

First Dion played shows Monday and Tuesday, Young took to the stage Wednesday, and then Dylan was live Friday. Each artist had the arena torn apart to meet their specific needs, and it took its toll on the rink, especially the ice. 

The preparations for Saturday night's game by Hutchings, the Canucks' director of engineering, and Wohl, Vancouver's manager of plant operations, actually began at the stroke of midnight Friday when their conversion crew began switching the rink back to hockey mode.

Midnight -- A 20-man crew works a grueling eight-hour shift that had them removing the floor that was covering the ice, thoroughly cleaning the ice, which had been trampled by thousands, putting the seats that were removed back in place, fixing up the players' tunnels and penalty box, changing advertising signs on the boards and reinstalling all of the glass that had been removed from around the boards. All this went on while the arena and ice were being cooled back down to customary hockey temperatures.

This normally difficult changeover was especially daunting on this night as the engineering department recently had installed new boards and glass, so the conversion process isn't exactly clockwork yet.  

7:00 a.m. -- The overnight overhaul had the arena ready by sunrise, which is when the technicians come in to ensure that all the electronics are in proper working order. The scoreboard, goal lights, penalty box equipment and telephones for the off-ice NHL officials are checked and double checked, as this will be Vancouver's first home game in 16 days and there are bound to be a few items in need of tweaking.

All this goes according to plan, and the Canucks hit the ice for their game-day skate at 10 a.m., with the Oilers following suit at 11:30 a.m. 

Cue Wohl, as it's his turn to work tonight. He's part of a four-man team that includes Hutchings and two others, as the engineering quartet rotates working games all season.

Noon -- With roughly seven hours before game time, Wohl arrives at work and immediately begins touring the bowels of the arena. He's the head honcho tonight, so while there's no specific duties to take care of, his main goal is to certify that everything is running smoothly, and that things continue that way throughout the night.

"We check that everything has been done, and if there are any problems, then we address them," said Wohl. "I'm here early enough that if there are any problems, we can get everything fixed and straightened out in good time. 

"Then during the games we're here to monitor for any safety concerns, fire alarms, anything like that, and to make sure that the work that needs to be done is getting done."

7:00 p.m -- The presentation and maintenance of the ice falls under Wohl's jurisdiction, so keeping an eye on the game itself also is a must. A 7-man ice crew -- 5 on ice and 2 rovers -- specifically are responsible for the ice conditions, but Wohl isn't hiding in the shadows. Should a problem arise, he's always front and center. 

"It's a fairly exact science and people don't really understand that with the ice," said Hutchings, who will work an upcoming Canucks home game while Wohl gets the night off. "The ice crew have got to keep that playing surface within a couple of degrees. We usually start at about 19 degrees (Fahrenheit) for surface temperature at the beginning of the game, and if we end up around 21 degrees, that's not bad, that's where we need to be, but you can lose that very, very quickly if you're not careful. That's what we have to deal with every game, and if it's not right, we hear about it."

Hutchings, Wohl and the entire engineering department are vital in allowing GM Place to be such a versatile arena. There's no game on this Super Saturday night, or any other night, without them.

"That's essentially what we try to do, we try to give the Canucks the best surface possible to play on," said Hutchings. "We try to make sure that the boards and the glass are perfect, that the ice is as good as we could possibly make it, that the room is warm enough for the fans to enjoy but cold enough for the ice to be at its best -- that's what we try to do." 

Celine Dion, Neil Young and Bob Dylan each swept through GM Place, and were it not for the tireless work of Hutchings, Wohl and their group, their presence in Vancouver may have affected the game.

Derek Jory writes for

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