Inside job: the transformation of Matthews Arena

It’s 5:25 a.m. on Saturday, March 1 and David Fraizer, manager of athletic facilities and events at Northeastern University, is unlocking the service door at the west end of Matthews Arena, home of the Huskies since 1930.

Fraizer, BHS’80, MS’90, is the first one in the building on this chilly morning, a conspicuous presence among 5,000 empty red seats.

Just eight hours earlier, the women’s ice hockey team had skated to a dramatic 2-1 victory over the University of Connecticut in the quarterfinal round of the Hockey East Tournament. A mere seven hours from now, the men’s basketball team will rally from a second half deficit to defeat the Drexel Dragons on Senior Day.

But this is not a sports story—this is a tale about the art and science of transformation. This is a glimpse into the camaraderie, hijinks, and loyalty of more than two dozen men and women who rise before dawn to turn the ice hockey rink into a basketball court in two hours flat.

They are staff in athletic facilities, building services, and the transportation, receiving, and warehouse department. They are international graduate students who hail from far-flung corners of the world and local undergrads who bake muffins for the crew. They are contractors who work for Olympia moving and storage, an award-winning company founded by a Northeastern alumnus. And they are the ones who make it possible for you to catch a basketball game in the afternoon and a hockey game at night at the world’s oldest continuously used multi-purpose athletic building.

“They are so committed to what they do,” says Fraizer, as crewmembers begin to arrive at 5:45 a.m. “They have a special place in their hearts for the university and are willing to make the commitment.”

Saturday marks the season’s 15th and final changeover. “Yeah,” Fraizer jokes, “it’s a sad day for the guys.”

But it is sad, in some ways; the composition of this group, like any pro sports club, is bound to look different next year, even if the crew’s core remains intact.

What will become clear over the next two hours is that these crewmembers love working together. “Chemistry,” says Fraizer on more than one occasion, “is the most important thing.”

One of the most important crewmembers is John Negrotti, the athletic facilities coordinator. He’s responsible for the ice, which must be kept at 17 degrees and measures between 1-and 1-¾ inches thick.

“I maintain the ice so Dave doesn’t wake me up and yell at me,” Negrotti jokes. Adds Fraizer: “Coaches and players say this is the best ice we’ve ever had. We’re always adding water to it and shaving it down.”

At 6:02 a.m., Chris Labriola, an 18-year veteran of the transportation department, drives a golf cart onto the pristine surface, smooth yet unslippery. The cart is hitched to a wagon carrying a score of 4-by-8 fiber-reinforced panels, the insulating properties of which trap cold air.

A few minutes later, a crewmember donning a black safety helmet places the first of some 540 panels atop the ice in the corner of the rink’s east end. It’s secured by a 100-pound dumbbell, a crude tradition predating Fraizer’s tenure.

Though unsophisticated, the dumbbell is a crucial component of the panel-laying process, which Fraizer likens to “putting a jigsaw puzzle together.”

The man in charge of the puzzle pieces is William Smith, supervisor of athletic facilities, who has overseen about 150 changeovers in the last 10 years. “I do a lot of yelling and pointing and supervising,” says Smith. “The toughest part of the job is showing people how to do things correctly.”

Or telling them what to do: “Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen,” he shouts, pointing to spaces on the ice where the numbered panels belong.

Says Fraizer of Smith: “You have to be a taskmaster if you want to get the job done.”

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By 6:35 a.m., the ice hockey rink looks more like a roller hockey rink. Every fiber-reinforced panel has been put in place and had time to cool and contract.

Smith is aiming to finish the conversion by 8 a.m., when Drexel is scheduled for a shootaround, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The crewmembers doff their safety helmets and break into small groups. One begins carting pieces of the polished maple wood court from the alcoves beneath the seats at the arena’s west end to the newly paneled floor. Another starts taking down the Plexiglas boards, which contain shock absorbers that have helped reduce concussion rates among hockey players since being installed a few years ago.

“Real tempered glass is heavier and more unforgiving, so we decided this was the best way to go,” says Fraizer. “The problem is that it scratches easily, so we have to replace it every few years.”

Olympia’s Ben Linguli is working on disassembling the penalty box boards. He moved from Kenya to the U.S. just eight months ago and says, “I’d never seen snow before coming here.”

Some 50 feet away, Negrotti and Smith are laying the first of the basketball court’s 240 segments. When they complete the middle column, they run a pink string from end to end, which helps determine if the pieces have been properly aligned.

“Do you have to start again if the center column isn’t straight?” Smith is asked.

“No,” says Smith. “We just beat it with a hammer.” This time, the hammer stays in the toolbox.

At 7:10 a.m., two crewmembers push a spring-loaded basket system to the court’s east end while their colleague dry mops the wood. The hoop is covered with a trash bag to help keep dirt off the net.

Fun fact: the basketball referees’ whistles are wirelessly connected to the game clock; when they blow, it stops.

But right now the crew must keep going.

It’s 7:45 a.m. and one group is draping sections of red seats in fire-retardant vinyl tarps, which were created using a computer-aided design program. Another is placing courtside seats and risers behind each basket system.

A burst of sarcasm interrupts the routine: “Three months he’s been working here,” Labriola tells a colleague about a fellow crewmember in earshot, “and this is the first time I’ve seen him carry anything.”

Meanwhile, a crewmember is standing atop a 20-foot extension ladder, taking down a plastic card that says “PENALTY” and putting up one that says “FOUL.” Two more guys are setting up circular tables in “The Spot,” a family-friendly gathering space on the floor’s east end.

One of them is Pruthvi Challa, MS’15, who grew up in India and joined the crew in September. Prior to enrolling at Northeastern, Challa had never watched a hockey game.

“It’s fun to be here,” he says during a short break to discuss his role on the team. “Ice hockey is something new to me, but I have started liking it.”

And then he’s back to work.

Bill Coen, head coach of the men’s basketball team, arrives at Matthews Arena at 8:06 a.m., some five hours before tipoff and a few minutes after the crew has completed the majority of the conversion.

At 8:10 a.m., the crew learns that Drexel has decided to skip the shootaround and Smith declares his desire for a cup of flavored coffee, a reward for a job well done. “How,” he asks, “do you think I keep running around?”

Most of the crew will rest between now and the end of the basketball game, in which the victorious Huskies overturn a five-point deficit in the final 45 seconds. Others might help prepare Parsons Field for the baseball team’s home opener on Friday.

Either way, the crew’s day is not over. At about 3:30 p.m., the team will have about two hours to turn the court back into a rink for the men’s hockey game against Boston University at 7 p.m. The crewmembers finish that job in one hour and 37 minutes, a new record.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to create an atmosphere for our teams and our students that is conducive to success,” says Fraizer. He is framed by a phrase in thick, red lettering, positioned on the wall in the east-end balcony. It reads: YOU’RE IN THE DOGHOUSE.