If you want to be an engineer you go to engineering school. Similarly, if you want to become a lawyer, you go to law school. What if you want to be a Zamboni Driver? Do you go to Zamboni school?
While there are no designated Zamboni driving schools, those who drive the 10,000-pound machine go through extensive training in order to earn the right to witness the exhilarating experience of getting waved at by hundreds of passionate hockey spectators.
Curt Carlson is a facility attendant at the Memorial Sports Centre. Carlson has been driving the Zamboni for six years. He said he was terrified when he first drove it.
“Once I got on it, I realized it was the coolest job in the world once you’re comfortable and confident. It’s the best part of my job,” Carlson said. “Driving a Zamboni is like the icing on the cake. It’s the coolest thing ever.”
A Zamboni is an ice resurfacing machine that shaves the top layer of ice from a hockey rink. The Zamboni then washes the ice and sprays water that instantly freezes, providing an immaculate layer of ice for skaters and hockey players.
Driving a Zamboni is not a willy-nilly act of driving in circles on an ice surface. Behind all the hype and cheering that Zamboni drivers get as they are watering the ice lies a difficult training period that will take place over several seasons.
Ray Calder, facilities superintendent, said driving a Zamboni is an ongoing skill that takes experience.
“Achieving a suitable ice surface requires not only a skill in operating the Zamboni, but an understanding of the ice surface itself,” Calder said. “This will aide in creating and maintaining proper ice. Over time the operator will become proficient in the operation of the Zamboni and develop an instinct for creating a beautiful ice surface.”
That being said, Carlson noted that even though each driver has their own technique, they have to pay maximum attention while operating a Zamboni.
“It is an art,” Carlson said. “You can’t be waving to the people in the crowd when they’re trying to yell at you. You have to focus on what you’re doing. One bad flood can ruin the ice.”
The Memorial Sports Centre has two Zambonis that operate on propane. There are two 30-gallon propane tanks on each Zamboni. A Zamboni is around $90,000 and one propane tank is about $40.
Calder said the Zambonis at the sports centre are set to monitor air quality as the propane is burnt, giving them one less thing to worry about.
There are four steps that Zamboni drivers follow to achieve beautiful smooth ice. The first one is shaving the ice by cutting the top layer using a sharp blade. Carlson said the ice is then carried away by rotating augers and gets dumped in a snow tank.
The second step is washing the ice using hot water stored inside the Zamboni. A new layer of hot water is then placed on the ice using a mop attached to the rear end of the Zamboni. This is done to even out grooves from skates that the shaving blades did not reach. The final step is spreading a new layer of water which freezes using the refrigerant systems under the Zamboni.
The Memorial Sports Centre in Fort Frances currently employs two operators with certified ice technician designations: Dan Scott and Shane Dustak.
Scott trained all five people who can drive the Zambonis at the sports centre. He said he has been training people for 12 years.
“It usually takes a week to teach Zamboni drivers the basics and three months to become more comfortable with the machine,” Scott said.
Scott said one wrong move can damage the ice. For example, burning a hole in the ice is possible if the Zamboni driver is too late changing the propane tanks.
Bob Green, head maintenance at the Memorial Sports Centre, said he deals with the more complicated problems with Zambonis. Green takes the Zambonis once a year to be checked on by a mechanic in the west end of town.
Calder said the path to becoming a Zamboni operator at a local ice rink can be a rewarding experience. Ice refinishing may appear to be as basic as driving in circles around an ice surface but there is a little more to it.
“This is a testament to the skill and dedication of the operator,” he added.