Joanne Kuzoff was as nervous as any other rookie during her first NHL game. She told herself what she was about to do was nothing new, that she had done this thousands of times before. Butterflies remained, even though she had driven a Zamboni in municipal arenas in Ontario for a decade.
“I took a deep breath and tried not to vomit,” says Ms. Kuzoff, who operates one of the machines for the Calgary Flames. “You are not flooding the ice for 20 people, you are flooding it for 20,000.
“Your heart starts to race. Suddenly it hits you. You are in the show now.”
One of only two women who drive a Zamboni full-time in the NHL, Ms. Kuzoff will make her playoff debut at the Scotiabank Saddledome this week when the Colorado Avalanche and Flames meet in their first-round series. She is part of a four-person rotation and will drive during the second game on Saturday night. The opener is on Thursday.
“I am very excited,” she says. “We are all hoping for hockey until June.”
She joined the team on Feb. 6 and drove in her first NHL game two weeks later. The only other woman that drives a Zamboni in the league full-time is Alison Murdock of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It is nice to do what I love and to represent that it doesn’t matter if you are a male or a female,” says Ms. Kuzoff, 48. “It can be a boys club, but it doesn’t have to be.”
The hulking vehicles that clean and resurface ice in the NHL weigh more than four tonnes and are not easy to operate. First, a sharp steel blade on the undercarriage is used to peel off the top layer, with the shavings tossed into a tank at the front.
Water is then sprayed down from the rear to clean the surface, and a squeegee is deployed to collect dirt and debris – perhaps the odd tooth – and to smooth it out. Finally, water is applied a second time through a boom at the back. Lasers are used to make certain the ice is level.
“You want to keep it fresh and hard and fast,” Ms. Kuzoff says. “That is the best you can do.”
She was born and raised in and around Toronto and drove a ride-on mower in her youth. She was helping to run the pool at a recreation centre in Aurora about 10 years ago when she went to the manager and said she wanted to be a Zamboni driver.
“Basically, I became the world’s oldest rink rat and started learning to drive the machine,” Ms. Kuzoff says as she sits in the stands at the Saddledome. “It is a bit imposing at first, but like anything else, once you get the hang of it, you become more comfortable.”
She took on jobs driving a Zamboni and managing rinks at arenas in Bradford and King, a township north of Toronto, before she was recruited by the Flames.
She was thrilled to receive a call from Calgary, but was also concerned about how the upheaval would affect her 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.
“My kids played a big part,” Ms. Kuzoff says. “They were really excited for me. My son sent my acceptance letter. I was hemming and hawing.”
Matt Callan, who manages the ice operations for the Flames, worked with her at the Bradford arena as well as for a company that paints ice surfaces for arenas. She impressed him enough to reach out to her, even though it would have been easier to hire someone with NHL experience.
“You learn something about someone’s work ethic when they paint the ice with you,” Mr. Callan says. “It takes three hours and is freezing and you are bent over the whole time. It is brutal, but she saw it through."
She joins Dave Witherspoon, Peter Mack and Edward Wysiecki in driving Zambonis for the Flames.
“You maintain relationships and never know where it will take you,” Ms. Kuzoff says.
The ice is flooded every three hours leading up to the puck drop on the day of a game. It is resurfaced before pregame warm-ups and immediately afterward, and then during intermissions between periods. The crew often stays into the wee hours after a game repairing the surface.
“This is the highest level of hockey that there is,” Ms. Kuzoff says. “As such, we want to give them the best sheet of ice that we can.
“The number of people that see it, and the amount of money the surface makes, is amazing. It is our product and we care about it. We take it to heart.”
Nearly every hockey fan dreams about driving a Zamboni, which are named after the California man who invented them. There are other manufacturers, but the machines are so famous they are all generically known as Zambonis.
The first was designed in 1949 using an army surplus vehicle chassis. It was patented in 1953 and, beyond a few minor modifications, has remained nearly the same for more than 60 years.
Fans are mesmerized as they circle a rink. Children wave at the drivers, who are deeply devoted to what they do.
The Flames’ other drivers have helped to ease Ms. Kuzoff’s transition from smoothing the ice in recreational rinks to NHL arenas. One big adjustment is working in tandem with another driver.
“I call it the dance of the Zambonis,” she says. “When I worked in community rinks there were never two. When there are two on the ice, they always have to be in sync, right down to their patterns.”
She will have some butterflies when she drives during the NHL playoffs. The biggest event she has worked so far was the tribute to Jarome Iginla at the Saddledome on March 2.
“It’s nice to be in this position,” she says. “When you have a daughter, it is nice to see that the trades are a good place for women.
“You can follow your dream.”