Watching a Zamboni whirl around a rink leaving behind a pristine sheet of ice is a meditative, almost Zen-like experience. Since 1949, the ice resurfacer has been an indispensible part of rinks across the country; offering a slice of calm amidst the frenzy of a hockey game. Anyone who has laced up a pair of skates knows that when the ice resurfacer comes out, you can't help but stop and watch.
We chatted with Jay Laxton (who is the Operations Manager at the General Motors Centre—home of the Oshawa Generals) about what it's like to operate one of the beloved machines, and how there's a lot more to it than just driving in a straight line.
VICE: How long have you driven a Zamboni?
I'm gonna correct you on the word "Zamboni"—they're actually called ice resurfacers. Zamboni is the brand name, like Kleenex or Xerox. I started out part time about 25 years ago at a local arena in my neighborhood. I was just moving the nets, sweeping the rooms, fell in love with it and kinda just went through the ranks.
What was your first time like?
Nerve-wracking. You have this big beast of a machine. I started driving when I was 16, I had my driver's license. I had the opportunity at my local arena—they were taking out the ice. When you do that, you operate the ice resurfacer quite a bit, because you're shaving down the ice. So you hop on, and it's a quick little training session. Back then they didn't have the courses for ice resurfacers that they do now. It was really trial and error.
Does having an audience psych you out?
It did in the beginning. When you're first in the business, you'd typically start out at your own community rink. Aunts, uncles, parents, friends in the stands. 150 to 200 of them on a good weekend. Versus here, with the Oshawa Generals, we're sold out every game—5,600 to 5,700. I've even driven NHL in front of 22,000 people. There is a pressure there but you get over it really quick. You have that moment of what am I doing, and then once you get going it's all gone. You block it out.
Do fans try and distract you?
All the time. Anything from the little guy that's in awe waving at you, to a bunch of knuckleheads throwing popcorn over the boards. People bang on it as you go by, thinking they're gonna scare you, throw you off. You block it out. I'll wave at a little guy waving at me, if people bang on the glass I'll give it a knock on the way by. We need to have fun too.
How does it handle?
It's similar to the chassis and framing of a Ford Ranger. But different ice resurfacers have different feels. It drives kind of like a truck but at the same time you really need to drive from the back. Even though you're steering from the front.
What's the biggest misconception about it?
People don't realize it actually cuts—there are blades underneath. They don't understand what really goes on, because all they see is the floodwater and the towel. They just think it lies this nice sheet of water that freezes and away they go.
Do you ever miss a spot?
Oh yeah, it happens from time to time. Especially if you're using two ice resurfacers at the same time. If your guys aren't driving the same or make the turns the same, you can miss a spot, sure. You either clean it up prior to leaving the ice, or if you have a good ice crew, the team I have here will pick it up and squeegee over it. We just continue on.
Do you listen to music while you drive?
No. We don't for safety.It's not like a car; there's no radio, no coffee holder. As much as you're driving, things can happen, it can break down. So we really rely on the feel and the sound.
How fast does it go?
Top speed is 9 km/hr. On ice it's pretty quick. Thankfully the tires are studded so they give you a bit of grip.
Are there any legendary ice resurfacers?
Not really. Several years ago they did a search for Ice Resurfacer of the Year; but it sort of fizzled out, there was no backing behind it. There's no real famous ones. The industry, as big as it is, is actually quite small. There's no Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan of ice resurfacing.
So you don't have groupies then?
[Laughs] No, no.
Why do you think it holds such an appeal?
I'll speak as a Canadian. Hockey is in our blood. It's from your youth. As a child you look at it and say that's a cool machine, or truck as a kid would say. We host an event at the building annually called Touch a Truck, we bring in all the different types of trucks you can think of. And the one that has one of the longest lines, is the ice resurfacer, every time.
It's just something you've grown up with, whether it's pleasure skating or you're playing hockey, or even outdoor ponds in downtown Toronto at Nathan Philips Square; it's everywhere you go. It's one of those things that people don't really get to have a relationship with, they always get to view it from afar. And here's nothing like it. You are every kids' dream. You see their eyes at the boards, looking at you. Nothing compares. It is a lot of fun. 25 years in the business, there's a love for it. People ask you, what do you do for a living…it becomes the hit of the conversation. Everyone is inquisitive of it, and nobody really understands what it truly does.
Does this make you an expert lawn mower?
[Laughs] No… I wouldn't say that! People have asked me if I'm more confident in winter driving. And I'm not. I don't have the luxury of the studs. I have a vehicle that can go 140 km an hour, versus a vehicle that's governed. It doesn't make you proficient elsewhere. But I can make a killer backyard rink.
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