There’s a Reason They Use Hockey Arenas

The names Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards and Khabibulin certainly don’t carry the same political heft as the likes of Romney, Ryan, Christie and Rubio.

But until the 2012 Republican convention, there was no doubt that Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Nikolai Khabibulin were the biggest names to hold forth at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. That’s because they carried the Tampa Bay Lightning to its first and only Stanley Cup in 2004. The Lightning finally defeated the Calgary Flames in a frenetic game seven at the Forum. The score was 2-1.

The Tampa Bay Times Forum is fundamentally a hockey arena. The locals knew it as the St. Petersburg Times Forum when it first opened in 1996. After using what is now Tropicana Field in nearby St. Petersburg for a few seasons (and routinely drawing more than 25,000 fans as they christened the building the “Thunderdome”), the Lightning moved into where they play now.

And this is the same building where the Republicans will play this week, if and when tropical storm Isaac finally lets them.

Workers have scrambled for weeks to convert the Tampa Bay Times Forum from a hockey barn into a political forum. But Republicans are old hands at this. They’ve held their last four conventions in venues which house NHL clubs. The GOP met in 2000 at the home of the Philadelphia Flyers in what was then called the First Union Center (now the Wells Fargo Center). In 2004, Republicans convened at Madison Square Garden, home ice for the New York Rangers. Four years ago, the GOP huddled at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN, the domain of the Minnesota Wild.

Of course, there’s a big difference between a hockey arena in the Sun Belt and an arena that features a walkway decorated with hockey jerseys from every high school team in Minnesota.

But a hockey arena is a hockey arena. Even when Republicans take over the place to nominate their presidential standard-bearer.

That’s why it doesn’t take too much effort to spot all the hockey trappings that still linger.

The main portion of the arena may be decked out with bunting and vibrant color schemes designed for TV. But the world of ice, skates and fans isn’t very far away.

Just a little more obscure.

Take a stroll through the bowels of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. You’ll quickly spot a locker room reserved for the “on ice officials.” The Lightning’s signature blue “bolt “ adorns most doorways leading to a warren of offices. There are multiple, cavernous walk-in refrigerator units stocked with cases of Miller High Life and other potions.

But hockey arenas are chameleons.

During the winter, some arenas toggle back and forth between basketball and hockey several times during a given weekend. The Staples Center in Los Angeles is a good example of that. It’s home to the LA Lakers and Clippers of the NBA and the Stanley Cup champion Kings of the NHL.

In Washington, it’s routine for the Verizon Center to host a Capitals hockey game Friday night, a Georgetown University basketball game on Saturday afternoon, a Wizards basketball game that night and then revert to hockey for a Capitals’ matinee on Sunday afternoon.

These buildings are as agile and limber as the professional athletes who play in them. And in this case, it’s the scores of arena personnel, carpenters, electricians, crane operators, lighting experts, set designers and others who can mutate a building constructed for hockey into a political assembly hall.

“The Forum has worked ‘97’ days without an OSHA reportable injury,” boasts a chart in an underground passageway. The number is digital so it can be changed. There are other signs admonishing passersby to “Watch out for forklifts” and “Don’t try to lift more than you’re able.”

Workers scurry around, shearing gigantic remnants of red carpet which blanket the concrete floor reserved for ice when the Lightning play. Someone does a sound check from the main microphone while CBS’s “Face the Nation” broadcasts live from the convention floor. The whirring of circular saws is as common as a hockey line change.

It’s a lot of work to transform the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The biggest difference is how they hollowed out the seating bowl to “grow” the size of the convention floor.

The RNC yanked out thousands of seats on the ends of the arena (behind where the hockey goals would sit). They’ve also stripped hundreds of seats in the middle of the seating bowl on both sides. The “bench” side (where the teams sit during the games) is now where the stage and a series of video boards are arranged. There are a total of 12 “cubist” square and rectangular video screens behind the stage. On Saturday, the screens worked together to show the Romney-Ryan logo. On Sunday, they revealed a tribute to the late Neil Armstrong. One screen showed Armstrong in his space suit. Another simply revealed his footprint in the lunar dust.

On the “penalty box” side of the arena, they built a complex series of platforms and risers. All are armed for a battery of TV cameras to point across at the stage.

One end of the arena floor is reserved for what’s called a “media standup platform.” It’s a temporary stage that looks out across the arena. Spaces are reserved for various outlets including Reuters, PBS, FOX, C-SPAN, BET, ABC, the Associated Press and others. The opposite end of the arena simply has the word “CHANGE” spelled out in gigantic letters. On Sunday afternoon, two workers removed the letters. For a while it simply read “CHA.”

Then there is the convention floor itself.

Banks of chairs are positioned at angles, all facing the stage. Posts with state names emblazoned on top in patriotic colors denote the seating assignments for each delegation.

Smaller, less-crucial states are relegated toward the back. Think West Virginia (five electoral votes) and Wyoming (three electoral votes).

Of course, the most-coveted spots are “orchestra” seats immediately in front of the stage.

These seats are cherished in two ways. First, the all delegates would like to sit there if they could. But these seats are even more important to the party. That’s where they want electoral gold mine states to sit. So up front you’ll find the swing state delegations of  Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin and Michigan. All could be make or break for Mitt Romney.

Then there’s a curiosity.

Near the front you’ll find a sign for “Northern Mariana Islands,” known colloquially as the CNMI. The CNMI is an insular American commonwealth. It doesn’t have a vote in Congress or any electoral votes. But the Northern Marianas does send a delegation to the GOP convention.

And then there was a curiosity back under the arena grandstand.

Stuffed in a large garbage bin was a sign which looks precisely like the CNMI’s on the floor. With one change. This sign reads the “Northern Islands Mariana”….which is not the commonwealth’s name.

There were no signs backstage depicting  North Virginia, Old York or Rhode Dakota.

During a hockey game, fans train much of their attention on the big scoreboards which hang from the rafters over center ice. In fact in hockey, you often have to watch two clocks: the game clock and the power play clock (which shows how much time is left in a penalty). And much like viewing two clocks at a Lightning game, the GOP convention will treat its attendees to a pair of clocks as well. The first is the National Debt Clock. It looks a like the dot-matrix debt clock in Midtown Manhattan, complete with the digits spiking toward $16 trillion. And then there’s the “other” clock. The Republican National Committee announced it will also launch a “miniature” debt clock when the convention gavels in Monday. This clock will begin to measure how much debt the U.S. racks up from the start to end of the convention.

Nothing rained from the Forum’s rafters in June, 2004 when the Lightning finally clinched the Stanley Cup. But that won’t be the case when Mitt Romney concludes his acceptance speech on Thursday night. Tethered to the ceiling are thousands of red, white and blue balloons. The balloons are all clumped together in big nets. They look like clusters of jelly beans. A sea of balloons will bury the convention floor once Romney’s done. After all, balloon drops are as much a part of American political conventions as the captain of the victorious team grasping the Stanley Cup with both hands above his head after the big win.

But despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding the balloon drop and Romney’s speech, this isn’t the end. Political conventions are the hockey equivalent of the conference finals – determining which teams advance to play for the Stanley Cup. The nation’s “Stanley Cup Finals” will play out in polling precincts in Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and maybe northern Maine (Maine allocates its electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state’s two Congressional districts). There’s a lot of hockey to play between now and then.

And no one knows whether Mitt Romney or President Obama will win.

So perhaps its only appropriate that these conventions are often held in hockey arenas. That’s because the next two months will be as rough as any game on the ice. And the result will probably be as close as the Lightning’s 2-1 victory on home ice over the Flames in 2004’s game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals.