What it takes to drive a Zamboni machine

It typically takes a Zamboni machine driver 15 passes down the ice to resurface the rink at Parade Ice Garden. Photo courtesy of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

What red-blooded hockey fan or figure skating aficionado hasn’t watched a Zamboni machine lumber around Parade Ice Garden and fantasized about piloting the ice resurfacer?

The good news for those folks is that Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has frequent openings for drivers of Zamboni machines.

But it’s not as easy as you may think. Imagine navigating the mammoth icing vehicle within inches of the boards, with your left hand on the steering wheel and your right shifting among eight controls as you fine-tune the machine’s operations.

Oh yeah, you can’t see the front of the machine from your driving perch on the rear. You need to keep your head swiveling to keep track of other workers who may be on the ice to tend to the goals. And you may be doing your job in front of hundreds of critics, so be careful not to slip up and shatter one of the glass panes above the boards. 

“You try it the first time, it’s a little scary,” said park-keeper Eric Weum, who began resurfacing ice at age 16.

Nevertheless, Emily Wolfe, who manages the Park Board’s two ice arenas, is eager to hear from anyone interested in a job that basically involves going around in circles.  Applicants need to be at least 16 years old, hold a driver’s license and be able to pass a background check.

The Park Board has a staff of three full-time arena park-keepers, plus another half-dozen or so who drive the Zamboni machine part time.     

Weum, who has 22 years of experience resurfacing ice, said it’s a skill most people can pick up in two or three weeks of training. They develop the muscle memory to grab the right control while keeping their eyes on the ice, learn to apply the right amount of water and gain the confidence to edge closer to the boards.

Some people who drive the Park Board’s ice resurfacers always wanted to do so. Others just like to be around hockey and see the games.

Eric Weum
Eric Weum

Weum can resurface a rink in eight minutes, although the Park Board allots 15 minutes for the job between rentals. That margin allows the ice to set sufficiently before skaters return.

The Zamboni brand is the pioneer in arena resurfacing and still sets the standard. Basic models start at about $125,000. The Park Board owns three, the newest still in its first year of operation. All three are electrically powered rather than the traditional propane propulsion.

The machine performs three basic ice-repairing functions. It scrapes the ice, it removes shavings created by skate blades and by the scraping process, and it applies a skim of warmed water that fills in remaining divots and creates a fresh surface for the inch and a half of arena ice.

The machine applies both cold water to give the rink a cleansing spritz and warm water heated to 140 degrees to improve the bond between the newly forming ice and the base ice. There are controls for both water flows, controls for the twin augers that carry ice shavings to the belly of the machine, a control managing pressure in the conditioner unit through which water and shavings pass, and a control to empty the shavings dump-truck-style. But setting the blade depth and applying the optimal amount of water are the most integral decisions.

The machine’s 70-inch-long blade typically shaves about one-sixteenth inch from the surface, more for more adept skaters whose blades may slice deeper. The blade is switched out weekly and sent to be sharpened. There’s an inventory of at least a dozen blades between Parade and the Park Board’s less heavily used Northeast arena on Central Avenue.

Weum is a font of Zamboni knowledge. It typically takes a driver 15 passes down the ice to resurface the rink. The machine crawls along at 12 miles per hour. Some drivers stand but most sit. They rarely need to brake because a machine laden with tanks of water and a pile of shaved ice slows quickly when the driver eases off the accelerator pedal.  A fully charged Zamboni machine can handle up to 20 resurfacings. And it takes close to a year to take delivery on a new machine because the company builds only to orders rather than stockpiling an inventory of machines.

If you’re interested, Wolfe said, the Park Board is looking for jockeys year-round: “We’re always hiring.”