Repairing the Saddledome one seat cushion at a time

CALGARY — The Globe and Mail

Workers install new seats as they prepare to re-open the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary. (Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail)

Robert Blanchard has a demanding job as director of building operations of the Scotiabank Saddledome.

In June, he was looking forward to some much-needed time off to begin work on a cottage on a piece of property at Lake of the Woods, Ont.

Sadly, Mother Nature had other plans.

On the next-to-last Friday of June, rising flood waters from the Bow River caused massive damage to Calgary and the surrounding areas. Homes were lost. The town of High River, Alta., was devastated. And the Saddledome, home to the NHL’s Calgary Flames – who open their preseason on Saturday – was under water.

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Dressing rooms, kitchens, the ice plant, video control room – everything from the ground floor up to the ninth row of the lower bowl was submerged in brown, brackish water.

So instead of a tackling a small personal building project, Blanchard was presented with a major fixer-upper: get the Saddledome up-and-running in time for the next NHL season.

“This project took precedence,” Blanchard said with a laugh during an interview last week. “Mine would have to wait.”

As a renovation, the aging Saddledome presented multiple challenges to Blanchard and his staff. Two crews, working separate 12-hour shifts, put in an estimated 650,000 man hours to get the building up and running for the first event Wednesday, a concert by legendary rock group, the Eagles.

The Flames open their exhibition season with a split-squad game Saturday aginast their provincial rival, the Edmonton Oilers, and against all odds, Blanchard said: “We’re good to go.”

Pictures of the Saddledome under water were among the most vivid and shocking of the ones that emerged from the flood. In a summer of severe weather all across North America, it drove the crisis home.

“Nothing could be salvaged,” Blanchard said. “Anything with soft surfaces held the water. There was a risk of mould growing. To reupholster each of the 2,500 seats that were lost was more costly than bringing in new ones.

“All electrical, once it gets wet, has to go. The mechanical equipment, anything rotational, the pumps, or compressors, couldn’t be salvaged, so it had to go. We took a step backward a few times when we realized the water got in over top of the block walls and into the hollow cores. With all the silt, it could become mouldy in the future, so we had to open up all that and clean all that out. A lot of it had piping in it, with insulation on it, so that holds the water so we had to get rid of that.

“Really, anything from nine feet down is completely brand new.”

By design, not much has outwardly changed in the renovated building, according to Blanchard.

The Flames ultimately want to follow the Oilers lead and replace the Saddledome with a new, more modern building.

In 1983, when the Saddledome opened, it was state-of-the-art, constructed in anticipation of Calgary playing host to the 1988 Winter Olympics. But even after one extensive and several other minor renovations, it no longer spins off the sort of ancillary revenues deemed necessary to fund professional sport in the 21st century.

Given the time constraints of repairing the building so it could be operational for the 2013-14 NHL season, there wasn’t nearly enough time to do more than replace the existing infrastructure. As a result, the Flames spent a lot of money – team president Ken King wouldn’t say how much, or what exactly was covered by insurance – to fix a building they hope will be mothballed within a couple of years.

“It’s a big number, both in terms of the interruption and the property loss,” King said. “You’ll see new seats, new glass. Every piece of equipment below decks is brand new, every piece of cutlery. But everything’s in place to go – and we anticipate it will go off really well.

“We’re back in business.”

According to Blanchard, the plan all along was to put the building back together exactly as it was.

“It’s an insurance requirement,” he said. “There was no use throwing a lot of extra money at this building. We’re left with the same dysfunctional concourse … so why have a completely up-to-date event level when nothing else is the way you want it?

“To try and redesign things would have taken months longer, so we compressed a six-month job into two months.

“The whole process was backward from what a regular project is. Normally, you’d go through your planning and your design and then your permitting. This was all backward. Contractors were in first. Concurrently, we did some planning and some design and then the permitting, we’re still getting into place – but the city’s been excellent to work with, and very understanding about our situation.”

The new seats are almost 1 centimetre wider, but were installed in the first four rows of the upper tier, while the old seats were shifted down to the lower levels because “they weren’t going to fit around the corners,” Blanchard said. “So we had to move the old ones down and the new ones went up there.”

Blanchard was one of the first people to inspect the building once the flood waters were pumped out and he saw absolute chaos.

“Everything that could float did float – desks, filing cabinets,” he said, “and because it wasn’t just a nice, static rising water, it was a torrent, everything got moved all over.

“We had desks on top of the stationary bikes. We had filing cabinets floating out in the middle of the ice slab. We had our concert boarding everywhere – up in the eighth row, where the water came up to. It was like somebody had set a bomb off in here and things flew all over and landed wherever.”

Just in case something went wrong or the project fell behind schedule, the Flames always had “a contingency plan in place for a number of locations for us to play our exhibition games if we needed them,” King said. “We’ve been cancelling. We think we’re very confident we will be able to go forward.”

So what, if anything, will be different for the spectators when they file through the turnstiles for the first time?

“Some of them might have cushier seats,” Blanchard said, “but they’re not going to see a difference – except maybe in the team.”

Yes, the team. After trading away two core players last season, Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester, and with former Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff retire this week, the Flames are about to embark on a massive rebuilding program that could see them at or near the bottom of the NHL standings for years to come.

Too bad Blanchard couldn’t put the rebuilding Flames back together again as quickly as he did their home.

“That’s not up to me,” he said with a smile. “I’m surprised we’re at the level we’re at now. I knew we’d be able to put on events – concerts and hockey – but to have the level of finishing we have now I didn’t think that was possible. But the contractors really did deliver for us.”

@eduhatschek

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