The Zambonis have been placed in -- where else? -- cold storage. Carpenters started removing 3,500 seats to make room for TV live-shot platforms. And Xcel Energy Center honchos handed over a big symbolic key Monday to the operations wizards behind the upcoming Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

As the 40-day conversion from hockey arena, concert venue and occasional rodeo corral into convention hall started at about 7 a.m., Mike Miller, Greg Lane and Mark Stoffel looked far from panicked.

By the time the balloons shower down on the delegates Sept. 4, this will be as much their show as John McCain's.

Miller, 71, is the behind-the-scenes operations director from Maryville, Tenn., "in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains."

TV networks threw him a retirement party in Philadelphia in 2000.

"So I thought that was it," he said.

Think again.

He's back for his 10th straight GOP convention, dating to Miami Beach in 1972, not counting two he worked in the 1960s as a journalist.

Lane, 55, is up from New Orleans as the national project director for Dallas-based Freeman Companies, which puts on trade shows and the past seven GOP conventions -- not to mention coordinating Pope John Paul II's 1993 visit to Denver.

Stoffel, 51, started his career as a teenage janitor at the old Met Center in Bloomington and has worked his way up to senior operations director at the Xcel Center.

As the forklifts started whizzing and the electricians started installing miles of fiber-optic cables, the behind-the-scenes trio answered some questions Monday:

Q How is this massive construction crew selected?

A Lane: "We bring up about 50 people from New Orleans: administration, foremen and supervisors. But we have contracts with carpenter, electrician and Teamsters unions, so we call the business agents in those union halls and they give us the people we need.

Right now, it's about 100 or 200 but that will grow to 500 workers. After Katrina, summers are kind of slow in New Orleans because trade shows are a little skittish about coming back. So this works out well for our guys."

Q What's the trickiest part of this conversion?

A Miller: "It depends on the facilities. We've had some where acoustics were the trickiest thing. That's not true here. We've been places where we weren't sure what the ceiling would hold and we had to do engineering studies, but that's no problem here.

With a modern, state-of-the-art arena, I can't single out big problems. There will be surprises, but they'll be relatively minor. We looked at the Metrodome and the Target Center and this one and found this to be ideal.

The concourses are wide and open to the bowl and that's good for media and hospitality positions. And there's a convention center under the same roof so you don't have to go outdoors. [Last time in 2004] in Madison Square Garden, the hallways weren't half as big as what we have here."

Q Any other local events similar to this one?

A Stoffel: "We had the NHL All-Star Game in 2004 and the Smithsonian [traveling show of historical artifacts] at the old Civic Center in 1997, but the large scale of this and coordinating all the different groups and unions makes it different.

The biggest thing that's a little unnerving is moving 25 people from their offices here to new temporary locations so the RNC folks can move in. Then there's finding secure storage for the Zambonis, the scoreboard and all the seats and furniture from 30 suites being turned into TV studios."

Q How much of this is just a big media event?

A Lane: "It's a massive coordination because it's not one network, it's all the networks. It's not one local newspaper, but all the foreign broadcasters and newspapers.

It's all about accommodating the media's needs. The RNC is really only using part of the arena for its function. The media is using all the RiverCentre convention space and the Roy Wilkins Auditorium for work areas.

Look at the geography of the site and the media end up in two-thirds or three-fourths of the actual real estate used for the convention and that gives you an idea of the impact."

Q Aren't you a little nervous about all this working out?

A Miller: "We have a detailed production schedule in which everything that needs to get done, gets into place. We build our podium [or stage]. We put in lights. We put in sound. We put in seating. We put in decorations. We handle the media facilities and the hospitality areas and all that goes into one big package and it all falls into place that last week. So we're ready."

Q Amid all the logistics, do you ever forget you're choreographing history to an extent?

A Lane: "These conventions have taught me a lot more about the whole American political process and I enjoy that. It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or a Republican. It's an unruly kind of event, but it's at the heart of how we nominate our presidential candidates."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767