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THE ZAMBONI MAN
No fancy car, no huge airplane or boat or motorcycle or any other mode of transportation is as single-minded in its purpose as the Zamboni.
The Zamboni is named for its creator, Frank Zamboni, and has joined that handful of trademarks that have evolved in general usage as nouns or verbs. Just as so many of us refer to tissue as Kleenex or photocopying as Xeroxing, so too do we say Zamboni the ice” instead of flood the ice.” But to flood is to Zamboni, for how else does the ice get cleaned?
Everything about the Zamboni is special. Look at the doors of any hockey rink. There are the two doors for each team’s bench, doors for each team at the penalty box, and at one end or in one corner are the doors for the Zamboni. It is as important as Gretzky or Orr or Howe to making a game great. From off ice, these doors are special. They are held tight by a big pole that lifts off its braces when the doors must be opened. As the Zamboni goes around and around, first scraping the old snow off and then splashing new water on in one motion, fans watch with critical care to make sure the driver doesn’t miss a spot. To turn a corner too quickly and leave a crescent moon of snow on the turn is simply bush league, unacceptable, the sign of a lousy driver. To finish the flooding with just a thin strip of snow left in the middle of the rink is also reason for ridicule. The driver must finish with a strip just a few inches less narrow than the width of the Zamboni’s back end, and if he does so, and doesn’t miss any spots, he is deemed by the crowd to be a first-rate Zamboni driver, a real pro.
Just as the Zamboni leaves the ice, it stops, lifts its rear end to dump the wet snow on the ice, and heads off. Cleaners must then scrape away the excess snow, squeegee any residual puddle of water, and then bolt the doors closed again. A good arena will have smooth ice right to the edge of the doors; a lesser rink will have a slight dip in the ice by the Zamboni doors or, worse, bumpy, unkempt brown or pock-marked ice. If the doors don’t close in perfect harmony, little gaps will appear in those sections of boards. Another no-no. Everything about the Zamboni’s exercises are a microcosm of ice maintenance and arena operations. These alone distinguish pro from amateur, superstar from minor leaguer.
All Zamboni drivers have multiple tasks at the arena. Ask to get your skates sharpened just before your shinny begins and you’ll be disappointed because the man who sharpens is likely on the Zamboni then. He also has possession of the room keys, can sell you a stick, loan you a puck, or collect any equipment left behind in the dressing room. The Zamboni driver is the custodian of all things at the hockey arena. When he goes home, the arena is locked and the game is over until the next morning when he returns.