The secret life of a Zamboni driver

Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 27, 2013

OTTAWA — When you walk into an arena first thing in the morning, you immediately notice how still the air is. Before the lights come on, everything in the dark feels as if it’s resting. In the Zamboni room, there is only a slight vibration coming from the air vents, the occasional gurgle from water pipes, or the creak of settling machinery. There’s a sharp taste and smell to the air, a combination of the tang given off by sheets of ice and the distinctive whiff of whatever hockey gear passed through the day before.

I’ve been driving ice resurfacers – the technical term, because “Zamboni” is actually a brand name – for about five years. I started out helping move nets, and eventually got my training, including a weeklong refrigeration and ice maintenance course, and became a driver.

I’ve worked in three different arenas in two different provinces. In that time, I’ve flooded the ice for the Edmonton Oilers and World Junior teams. I’ve flooded in front of hundreds of spectators and players. These days, I drive the Zamboni on weekends at the Bell Sensplex in Kanata, prepping the ice for everyone from the Senators to kids out for their first bandylegged skate.

It’s a pretty cool job, I think, and it’s layered in a kind of Canadian mystique: You don’t want to ruin the magic by saying it’s really not so different from, say, operating a ride-on lawn mower.

We Canadians have a strange, cultural interest in the Zamboni. Zamboni drivers feature in commercials, there are remote controlled toys, and a Zamboni circling the ice – always in a clockwise pattern – casts some sort of enchantment over a crowd; it’s just so hard to look away.

And each time we drivers pull out onto the ice, it’s something of which we’re very conscious.

Little kids want to come into the Zamboni room and look at the machine and adults want to know how they work.

It’s really quite straightforward, though there is a bit of a knack to navigating around an arena atop 5,000 kilograms of engine, a razor sharp shaving blade and whirring augers.

When you’re on top of the machine, you sit at the back left, and you can’t quite see over the front because it’s so long. You also have components to operate: the two water systems, the brush that sweeps snow along the boards, and a crank that controls how much ice you are shaving off.

You have to remain pretty alert. Often, you’re in a rush to get things done, and you’ve got to have a good sense of where you are on the ice so you don’t hit the boards.

A Zamboni actually stops quicker than you might think, and you’re helped out by studded tires. But, a mere second delay, and you might end up bumping into the boards behind the net when you turn. It’s also important to make sure you don’t suck up an errant puck – Zamboni lore tells of pucks being blasted through the side of the machine.

The one thing I have noticed over the years is that the vibrations come up through the driver’s area – which is all metal, minus the chair – and tickle your feet. You also, occasionally, feel the whole thing shudder underneath you as it digests a particularly heavy load of snow that has built up and needs to be cycled through the augers into the snow tank in the front. But of course, as with any job, it’s not always so glamorous.

I’ve slipped on the ice, landing flat on my back, to the jeers of soused beer league hockey players.

The duties also include more than just flooding the ice. I’ve had to confront NHL hockey team employees for smoking indoors and mopped up my fair share of vomit. Incidentally, it’s always better to throw up on the ice – it scrapes off far more easily than it mops up.

I can tell you that hockey pucks and hockey sock tape don’t flush down toilets.

As if that wasn’t enough, the biggest downside to being a Zamboni driver is that you’re wet and cold.

All the time.

The machine itself has two massive water tanks, one extremely hot and one cold. They are filled by two fat, high-pressure hoses. Sometimes, the hoses fly out and become a very unpleasant Water Wiggle, sending grown men running for cover.

The shared experience of driving a Zamboni has created a pan-Canadian culture of those of us who work in arenas. This comes out through the games played in Zamboni rooms across the country.

You see, a key to surviving a day in the life of a Zamboni driver is making it through the downtime. It only takes about 10 minutes to flood a sheet of ice, and you have to stay occupied the rest of the time. This usually involves cleaning and doing maintenance on the Zamboni or around the building.

However, a generation of entrepreneurial Zamboni drivers laid the foundation for some epic time-wasting alternatives to working. I’ve even worked in an arena where the go-to game – before the bosses shut it down – was cribbage.

The most ubiquitous, though, is any sort of baseball-cricket fusion involving a busted goalie stick and a tape ball. Memorably, at one point in an arena I worked at there was a full size Lisa Simpson sticker on one wall. A direct hit on that counted as a grand slam.

Of course, in case my boss is reading, I haven’t done that in years.

 

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