Years later, getting to drive a Zamboni still a great memory

Jan 17

How many of you are fans of hockey?

If so, I’m sure at some point during your life, you’ve wanted to drive a Zamboni.

And I don’t mean an ice-surfacing machine — I mean an actual name brand Zamboni. Coming out on the ice during the intermission of an ice hockey game and putting down a new sheet of ice.

The Zamboni making the ice ready at a recent college hockey game I attended.

Ahhh, we can all dream.

This post would have been better if it had run Wednesday. Alas I didn’t realize it would have been the 112th birthday of Frank Zamboni, the inventor of the wonderful ice resurfacing machine. Not only was it his 112th birthday, but Google had a playable doodle in his honor.

When I was in grad school, I wrote for a few weekly papers as I tried to make ends meet. At one of them, one of my beats was covering a solid high school hockey team. I really enjoyed it and the coach helped me land a solid interview with the main guy who drove the Zamboni. I did an interview with him and then he took me on a spin with the Zamboni.

Then it happened.

Though he didn’t let me drop a new ice surface (I had no training and those things are quite expensive, you see), I got the chance to take a lap around the rink driving the Zamboni.

Way too cool.

So, I went digging and found the old article. I’m not sure if this was the printed version or the version I originally sent in, so I did a little editing to shorten it, but here’s the bulk of that story I wrote several years ago.

But, before you read the story … I’d encourage you to hit play on this video and listen to the Gear Daddies and their song “Zamboni.”

YouTube Preview Image

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Meet Northford’s “Zamboni Man”

North Haven Post (April 3, 2003)

It’s a hockey fan’s dream.

Drive a Zamboni around the ice, drop a new sheet and park. It sounds simple.

Not so fast.

Ice resurfacing machines aren’t as easy as they look. It’s not just hopping on them and taking a spin around the ice; these machines are complex. From adjusting blades to worrying about the amount of water being used, it’s not effortless.

No matter what rink one enters to watch a hockey game, there’s going to be some version of an ice resurface machine.

At Northford Ice Pavilion, there are several drivers to cover the crazy schedule at the rink, but one full-time driver sticks out.

Greg “Griz” Belcher is in his fourth year at Northford, and eighth overall at driving an ice resurface machine, and is Northford’s only full-time driver.

Yale grad

“People ask where I learned to drive,” Belcher said. “I tell them I got my bachelor’s degree at Yale.”

It’s a joke Belcher said he likes to play because it shocks people. The truth is Belcher earned his stripes at Ingall’s rink on Yale’s campus.

Before his entrance into the world of resurfacing ice, Belcher was working for a beer distributor as a driver, and the drivers on strike. After others replaced the striking drivers, Belcher was jobless.

“A friend talked me into coming down to drive,” Belcher said. “Which I thought was interesting. It’s not ruining my body like going up and down stairs and in and out of cellars delivering beer.”

Belcher started to learn the fundamentals of a Zamboni at Yale and soon he was mastering the machine.

“It took me a good month or so,” he said. “The hardest part is adjusting the blade. If you have figure skaters, it’s not as bad as when there are hockey players.”

“Once you get used to it, it all falls into place.”

In his years of driving the machines, however, he’s had the chance to get to know players, coaches and everyone else involved with the rinks. North Haven coach Mike Violano said he’s known Belcher for years.

“Griz has a great attitude for his job,” Violano said. “You get a guy that knows his job and he understands what it means to each team. That’s why he’s an important part not only to the game, but to the rink.”

Northford’s “Pond”

Most rinks are home to only one or two teams. Not the Northford Ice Pavilion. Try two colleges, five high schools, four club teams and a precision skating team. That doesn’t even include youth leagues, clinics and open ice time.

“It gets hectic all the time around here,” said rink manager Bill Maniscalco.

The facility has two rinks; a pro-shop, snack bar and two ice resurface machines – a Zamboni and an Olympia. Some nights, the ring could face having three games of high school or college level.

“During the wintertime, we’re constantly going,” Belcher said. “All the teams are fighting for position time to play and practice.”

Maniscalco, who pitches in driving the machines among his other roles, such as scheduling, working the snack bar, billing and whatever else needs to be done. He has a staff of around six drivers. Some include Quinnipiac University hockey players.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Maniscalco said. “You have to know the group that’s out there. You have to leave a good sheet, because if not, I’m the one who hears about it.”

But with all the teams practicing and playing at Northford, teams know what the rink has to go through to get things going.

“We’re treated well at Northford,” Violano said. “The Northford facilities are good and the people take pride and care of them.”

Violano said hockey parents and families have a network of knowing which facilities are good and which aren’t. Spending as much time in rinks as they do, they know which have the best ice, snack bars and every other aspect.

“Parents talk about rinks,” Violano said. “It’s almost like having Rink U.S.A. and ranking the rinks. They would give Northford one of the better stars.”

Complicated Machines

Ice resurface machines aren’t toys. Although it looks fun to drive one, when it’s on the ice it’s doing some serious work. With razor sharp blades, it’s making sure the ice is perfect to skate on.

It’s actually a complicated procedure. But basically, it shaves ice. The water that comes out of the machine is usually at 150 degrees or hotter.

“You’re cutting ice while you’re making ice,” Belcher said. “Hot water is sent down, which fills in cracks and makes better ice.”

The procedure of how the ice resurfacer works is just as complicated. Someone couldn’t just jump out of the crowd, start one up, go on the ice and work the machine.

“You just don’t put someone on the machine and say ‘go do it,’” Belcher said.

But what the machines do is something hockey people value. Fans don’t always understand how important an ice resurface machine is to a rink.

“The people that understand hockey know how to appreciate it,” Violano said. “It’s like any other profession. They take care in their job.”

With throwing down a new surface, hotter water equals better ice. A towel behind the machine spreads the water evenly. Belcher said the hot water hitting the cold ice is one thing some people wonder about.

“That’s why a lot of times people see the machines on the ice and they see steam,” he said.

The machines

Not every machine is a Zamboni.

The name Zamboni is a brand name, and is trademarked by Frank J. Zamboni & Company, Inc. Northford has two different machines, an Olympia and the popular Zamboni.

Zamboni, however, is the brand name most people think of when they see a machine come onto the ice. The Zamboni website (http://www.zamboni.com) charts the machine back to 1949, created by Frank Zamboni.

He owned an ice rink and needed to figure a way to resurface the ice. Back then, they used a tractor with a scraper behind it, and then had people get rid of the shavings, spray water and then use a squeegee to clean it off. This took about an hour.

He was soon working on a machine to make the process easier. The first Zamboni came in 1949. The machine improved and changed with just about every one that was made.

Now, one of these machines can clear and resurface an ice in about 10 minutes.

The Olympia is newer to the market, and is a bigger machine. The big difference between the two is the engine. The Zamboni is made with a Volkswagen engine, the Olympia with a 350 Chevrolet engine.

“If you look at our rims, it says Chevy truck,” Belcher said. “If you drive down the road and pull next to a Chevy truck, that’s our Olympia.”

With the bigger engine, the Olympia has more power. Belcher said he doesn’t have a preference to which he would rather drive.

“I like both of them,” Belcher said. “The Olympia we have is bigger and holds more snow and water. I could cut both sheets without dumping or filling with water.”

No matter the machine though, driving almost seems like it might have been something Belcher was destined to do. Resurfacing ice came natural to him, even when he was younger and playing pond hockey.

“When I skated on ponds, we used to break a hole into the ice, grabs someone’s trash pail, fill it up with watcher and dump it on,” Belcher said. “It just makes it smoother.

“You don’t want big ruts out there; someone could break an ankle.”

The Perks

Although the novelty of driving has somewhat worn off for Belcher, he still enjoys it.

“It was fun, but now it’s like a regular job,” Belcher said. “But everyone looks at you like ‘wow, that’s the coolest job going. There’s still fun in it.”

It doesn’t hurt that Belcher is a hockey fan. One thing Belcher said he really enjoys is the children that run up to the glass and wave and scream as he passes by. Fans of all ages love to cheer for the “Zamboni man.”

“Little kids are always waving at you so that’s fun,” Belcher said. “When you make the turns, that’s where everybody wants to stand and wave. A lot of times I smile, but they won’t be able to see it.”

Belcher’s smile is hidden by his bushy beard, but he does notice the children waving and cheering, even though he was always taught at Yale not to look into the crowd, a rule he still follows to this day. Jumping and screaming children catch his eye, however, and he can’t help but to smile.

Belcher said he can’t complain about where he is now. He enjoys work, has a good time and works in a positive environment. Even though the hours in the winter can get long with a lot of games and teams playing and practicing, he doesn’t mind.

“I like it here,” Belcher said. “It’s busy, so it keeps me busy. You’re never bored.”

Feel free to leave a comment, or e-mail P.J. at hoohaablog [at] gmail.com. Also, please “Like” HooHaa Blog on Facebook!

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4 comments

  1. jealous :)

    I’ve never been out on the ice on one but we did get to climb up on one and pose for photos backstage at the Tampa Bay Lightning a few years back

    Vancouver are my team,though, and they don’t use Zambonis (some kind of conflict with GM who used to sponsor the arena), they use “Olympians” or something like that – so my real dream would be to take one of those out for a spin on the ice at GM Place (or Rogers Arena as they call it nowadays but I still can’t get used to that….)
    Sarah (Flo) recently posted..Rocking Your World Friday – wrapping up 2012My Profile

    • Yeah, I mention the Olympia machines in the story above. Zamboni is the actual trademark. Some places don’t use the actual Zamboni, which is a shame. … because it’s a Zamboni people want to see! :D

  2. They added a passenger seat to the one they use at Joe Louis Arena(Detroit Red Wings) and they pull random seat numbers to decide who gets to ride on it between periods.

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