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(Anne-Marie Jackson/The Globe and Mail)
(Anne-Marie Jackson/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Two minutes for boarding Add to ...

I assumed that driving a Zamboni would be simple. But as I climbed aboard, I felt like I'd stepped into the cockpit of a B-52 bomber. There were banks of switches, a forest of levers, and green computer display covered with mystic symbols. The only control I recognized was the steering wheel, which looked as though it had been lifted from a farm tractor.

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As ice-surfacing rides went, I was starting at the top. My machine was a $100,000 Zamboni 525, and I would be cleaning the ice at the fabled Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. My instructor was Tony Kirkpatrick, who has driven one of the ACC's Zambonis for the past 12 years.

... and he did. Watch the video to see exactly how well rookie Peter Cheney did wheeling it around the Air Canada Centre ice surface.

In the hierarchy of arena employees, this gives Kirkpatrick Michael Schumacher status. The Zamboni job is highly coveted. Although the speeds are low (Kirkpatrick typically laps the arena at about seven km/h), the task calls for steely nerves and the hand-eye co-ordination of a surgeon.

"Not just anyone gets on the Zamboni," said Brent Wynne, facilities manager for the ACC. "You have to do precision driving in front of a big crowd. This isn't a little community rink where you can go back and do a spot you missed."

Now I was firing up the Zamboni myself to see if I had what it took. Kirkpatrick talked me through the complex startup: I had to raise the scraper blade, make sure the augers were off, retract a pair of brushes that stuck out the side and prime a bank of pumps. After navigating my way to the ice, I had activate a set of sprayers that washed the tires.

And that was just the beginning. Out on the rink, I would monitor multiple banks of pumps that cleaned the scraper blade and laid down a sheet of water as I passed over the ice. Precision was crucial, but the Zamboni felt massive - with more than 1,000 litres of water in its steel belly, it weighed almost twice as much as a Cadillac Escalade. I sat high in the air, like a tank commander riding in an open turret.

The Zamboni was powered by natural gas - two giant cylinders of it were bolted next to the drivers seat. Just for a laugh, I'd decided to wear a fireproof race driving suit for my Zamboni lesson. Now it was looking like a smart idea, given my lack of skills and the fact that I had a pair of bombs riding shotgun.

"Don't hit the boards," Kirkpatrick warned me. I kept that in mind, recalling the story of a Zamboni operator at a Toronto community rink who liked to loosen up before work with a few drinks. Although it went well enough for a while, the day finally arrived when he failed to negotiate the end turn, taking out an entire section of the boards.

I put that (and the natural gas tanks) out of mind as Kirkpatrick taught me his routine, which is designed to yield a perfect ice surface with the minimum number of passes. The key would be my overlap distance - I would attempt to skim the edge of each previous lap. I was warned that the end-zone turns would be the hardest part - if my arc varied, I would leave behind curved patches of bare ice. Operators refer to small patches as "bananas." More egregious patches are known as "half moons," and can end a an NHL Zamboni career in short order.

Now I was performing the critical first pass, which called for a precision lap against the boards. I lowered the conditioner, a metal box mounted on the rear of the Zamboni. Inside the conditioner was a razor-edged blade that would shave off a layer of ice, and a set of spray nozzles that laid down a sheet of hot water. Lower-end Zambonis use a wet towel, but not the costly 525 - it was equipped with a Fast Ice system that did away with the towel, yielding a more perfect skating surface.

Now it was time to deploy the board brushes, which sweep up ice shavings. I pressed a button, and the brushes swung out on a pair of steel arms, like aircraft landing gear. I guided the Zamboni toward the goal crease for my ice surfacing debut.

For a while, it went fairly well. I managed to keep my water-filled leviathan a couple of hand-widths from the boards, which were plastered with advertisements. I passed the Pizza Pizza banner and made it past Viagra without incident. Now it was time for the all-important turn at the end. I struggled to match my arc to the sharp curve, leaving a few banana-shaped bare patches in my wake. I breathed a sigh of relief as I headed onto the straightaway that would take me past the Leafs penalty box. I stole a backward glimpse, and was thrilled to see a lane of perfect, glistening ice.

"You're doing pretty well," Kirkpatrick told me. It didn't last. My Waterloo came at next curve. Since my eyes were glued to the bottom of the boards, I didn't notice that the gate I'd driven onto the rink through was open. My guideline instantly disappeared, and I was driving blind. With a crash, I clipped the back edge of the gate. The glass rattled, and I wondered if I'd destroyed a famous NHL arena.

I hadn't. There was probably a ding in the boards, but Kirkpatrick told me not to worry. On I went, lapping the ice. Twenty minutes later, the ice was done. I'd taken about twice as long as Kirkpatrick would, and I'd left a few rough patches.

"Definitely not NHL quality," Kirkpatrick decreed. His job remained secure.

... and he did. Watch the video to see exactly how well rookie Peter Cheney did wheeling it around the Air Canada Centre ice surface.


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