The icemen cometh
June 20, 2005
In the face of the coolest machine on earth, tractors tremble, bulldozers cower and cranes bow down. No other machinery competes with the enigma, the prestige and the solitary distinction that the Zamboni represents. It’s just that cool.Kids press their faces to the glass, squishing their noses to try to get just an inch closer. Parents dally after hockey practice, unable to pull their eyes from the ice. A few dedicated-to-the-core Aspen Junior Hockey board members can even be distracted midmeeting by the majesty of a Zamboni prowling the ice.
The state-of-the-art machines that run almost hourly at the city’s two rinks – the Aspen Ice Garden in town and Lewis Ice Arena at the ARC – are sleek electric beasts that run flawlessly, assuming you know how to tweak the right handles. The newest member of the squad, the Ice Garden’s 2004 Model 550, costs $90,000 – about the same as a midrange Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet. The ARC’s Zamboni is a similar 2001 model.The outdoor Silver Circle rink downtown, on the other hand, uses an antique Zamboni, fresh out of the 1940s and about half the size of the giants at the indoor rinks. The junior model is equivalent to a riding lawn mower – right down to the gasoline-fired engine.Zamboni drivers, for their part, are a special breed of men and women who spend their lives in ice rinks, fascinated with hockey or skating, and intrigued by the behind-the-scenes action of resurfacing the ice. They are rarely drawn with intentions of making a living within a rink’s refrigerated doors but often find themselves stuck to a lifestyle – not a job, but a craft. Driving the Zamboni “really is an art form,” said Steven Costalas, a “rink guy” at the Ice Garden. “It really takes a special touch.”The Zamboni drivers at Aspen’s three rinks have that special touch.Aspen is home to two of only 93 certified ice technicians in the nation: Dan Berry at Lewis Arena and Dan Pierce at the Ice Garden are the local five-star generals of ice maintenance. And the Silver Circle’s John Sabel is the only person who can keep the temperamental curmudgeon that is the junior Zamboni running.
The Zamboni’s top speed is about 9 miles per hour, but no one walks off the street and takes a spin – no one.”We take a lot of pride in our ice, because basically it’s what we’re all about,” said Peter Whitmore, manager of the Ice Garden. “People come here for one reason – to use that ice surface.”Driver hopefuls aren’t required to take classes (yet), but their training is rigorous and closely monitored by veterans like Pierce and Berry. In a three-week training process, trainees learn to appreciate all the handles and cranks of the Zamboni. Two handles control the water, one controls the blade, and another breaks up snow to prevent ice jams. Four levers control the machines’ hydraulics.”It’s quite an investment in time and energy to train a person,” Berry said.A Zamboni essentially consists of two parts – the tractor pulls the conditioner, and the conditioner works the ice, cutting it, cleaning it, laying down water and shooting excess snow into the big dump-truck bucket on the front of the machine.
Drivers are responsible for emptying the bucket. It’s much easier at the indoor rinks, where advanced technology raises the bucket and empties the snow just like dirt from a dump truck. At the Silver Circle drivers do the dirty work themselves, shoveling out the snow the old-fashioned way.Costalas, now approaching veteran status after four years on the Zamboni, remembers his first drives clearly: “I was nervous as hell. There are so many blind spots.”It took a year, Costalas said, but he mastered the beast. He now knows how much ice to shave off after high school hockey practice, how much water to lay after the figure skaters leave and where the ice thins because of overuse. Costalas checks the ice temperature, ice depth and building humidity before each ice make, and, most important, he knows the individual quirks of the machines he drives.Master Zamboni drivers gain an intimate knowledge of their machines, and they say no two Zambonis are the same. The science of resurfacing is only the beginning. The art is the deal-sealer.”An understanding of the personality of the machine really assists you in the quality of the ice,” Whitmore said. “You develop a feel for the machine,” including its 10-foot blind spot.
Sabel, assistant manager of the Silver Circle rink, considers his keen understanding of the junior Zamboni to be job security.”If someone new were to come in here, they wouldn’t know how to tweak this thing and all its idiosyncrasies,” Sabel said. Sabel and his family have managed the Silver Circle for 12 years. The vintage model used to run at a rink in Honolulu before being shipped to California for reconditioning. Frank J. Zamboni, the inventor of the ice resurfacer, was from California, and Zambonis are still made near Hollywood. After the junior went home to the Zamboni plant for repairs 14 years ago, the Silver Circle bought it.Well-preserved Zambonis can last up to 40 years, so the over-60 junior borders on a miracle machine. But it packs a heavy punch in its small frame, Sabel said, noting that he has been offered money by passers-by who want to take it for a spin. The allure of the Zamboni pulls people off the streets.”The Zamboni’s a real romantic name,” said Nancy Sabel, co-manager of the Silver Circle. “All men want to drive a Zamboni.”But Erich Grueter, famous for his yearly appearances atop the affectionately named “Old Blue” Zamboni in the Fourth of July parade, said driving loses its intrigue over time.
“The first hundred times you drive it, it’s terrifying,” Grueter said. “Then it’s fun – you’re all excited. Then it’s right-hand turns and kind of cold.”Grueter acts tough, but that explanation doesn’t explain why he’s still smiling and waving at local hockey players after 11 years of making ice.Most drivers agree: There is something about driving the machines that keeps them coming back for more.”All of us operators know we’re not going to get rich doing this,” Berry said. “But we just love the job.”