Think You Can Operate a Zamboni? Think Again

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Len Redkoles / Getty Images

Steven James Anderson, a North Dakota parks employee, was sentenced to 19 days in jail for driving a Zamboni while intoxicated between periods of a Fargo youth hockey game.

Spectators knew something wasn't right as he swerved around the ice and crashed into the boards several times. But what really gave him away was when he yelled to the sound operator to "Crank it up!" during an AC/DC song playing over the loudspeakers.

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The New York Islanders, who are moving from their longtime home in Nassau Country into their new spot at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn this summer, are looking for a new Zamboni driver. And while the job remains open, Anderson is one of many whose resumes will conveniently disappear. Because aside from driving under the influence, crashing a Zamboni into the boards is basically the worst thing you can do while operating one.

"That would be number one," says Dan Craig, the NHL's senior director of facilities, whose toughest annual task is resurfacing the ice during the league's outdoor Winter Classic. "People don't realize how tough it is to drive in a straight line for 200 feet," he says. "And when you don't drive in a straight line, I'm pretty sure there are fans all over the league who will let you know about it."

A position that requires unique skill honed through years of practice, the Islanders aren't going to hire a random fool from Flatbush to joyride on the Zamboni between periods of home games. This is a task that requires mechanical precision, a steady hand, and a laser focus. Same as you wouldn't put a scalpel in the hands of someone with zero medical training, nobody's tossing the keys to the Zamboni to an amateur.

"In essence, you almost have to be a minor engineer," says Craig, who first learned how to operate a Zamboni "decades ago" in Edmonton, where they don't let anyone near the Oilers home ice until they've had the proper training.

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"They would put in at least 12 months experience on a secondary rink before they became eligible to even try to drive in front of a crowd of 17,000," he says. "Because it's pretty intimidating. When you're out there and there's thousands of people, all of a sudden they turn off the lights, you've got music blaring, it takes a huge amount of concentration for the six to eight minutes that you're out there."

A Zamboni circling a sheet of ice is among the most tranquil scenes in sports. But to the person seated atop the iconic machine with T-shirts fired out of cannons into the crowd zipping past his head, it can be a white-knuckle experience. Patience is among the chief requirements as you monitor gauges, flow speeds, water temperatures, and blade levels. Amid all the distractions of a busy arena, operators must maintain a steady, even course.

But if you are going to send in a resume for the job, here's a few things you must know.

Calling it a Zamboni is like calling every soda "Coke."
Zamboni is just the name of the company that makes one machine. Frank Zamboni built the first machine that was able to smooth ice shredded, chopped, and scraped by skate blades more than 60 years ago.

What does the machine actually do?
Most of a Zamboni is just a big tank that collects snow. The magic happens in the small unit at the back of the machine that cuts the old ice with a massive printer's blade, and then sprays down water that becomes the top layer of the new sheet. When the ice surface is cut up by the blade, it turns into snow, which is sucked up into the Zamboni with a pair of augers. The machine also has large brushes behind the front wheels that help to sweep out snow from the corners and away from the boards.

How does a Zamboni work?
Wash water is sprayed in front of a blade as wide as the Zamboni to even out cracks and create a level surface. Behind the blade, which shaves the ice flat, is a second stream of hot water — the hotter the better — that leaves the familiar glossy surface in the machine's wake. While boiling water and ice don't sound like a logical combination, hot water actually melts the ice and then re-freezes slower than cold water for a stronger and more even surface. Cold water freezes quickly and produces weaker ice that chips and breaks when you skate on it.

A Zamboni is to ice what a lawnmower is to grass. Kind of.
NHL players tear up the ice because they are such heavy, powerful skaters, and it's the job of arena managers to maintain the quality of the surface, same as greenskeepers manicure golf courses and groundskeepers tend to the base paths and outfields of ballparks. But that's about where the comparisons end between operating a Zamboni and walking behind a lawnmower. There's a lot more to operating one than just driving it in a straight line.

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However, just like there is a bit more to driving a tank than there is to driving a car, operating a Zamboni is much more complicated than mowing your front yard.

"When was the last time you did that with 17,000 people watching you?" Craig says. "When you're out there and the stands are full, it feels like everyone is watching you. And they are watching until you make a mistake."

Or you tell the sound guy to crank up the AC/DC.

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