Zamboni Driver

by Staff - Original publish date: January 16, 2012

"Now ever since I was young it's been my dream
That I might drive a Zamboni machine
I'd get the ice just as slick as could be
And all the kids would look up to me."

- Gear Daddies, "The Zamboni Song," bonus track from Billy's Live Bait

Those lyrics from the Gear Daddies' ode to the ZAMBONI ice resurfacing machine are fitting for Al Sobotka, keeper of the ice at Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings. Sobotka, a lifelong hockey fan, began working at the arena when he was in high school.

"It was just a job I got when I was in high school, and I kept at it, working in the maintenance department for a few years," he said. Thirty years later, Sobotka is the building operations manager for Joe Louis Arena, and still drives the big machine for every hockey game and ice event at the arena. He said his longevity on the job is proof positive that he's got a dream job.

"I still enjoy getting up in the morning," said Sobotka, who has been featured in Sports Illustrated magazine. "If you don't enjoy your work, it's hard getting up in the morning, you know?"

Sobotka's job has given him the opportunity to not only see every home Red Wings game, but also to get up close and personal with the players and coaches of the Red Wings and other NHL teams. He said he's known some of the Red Wings players, such as Mike Modano, since they were just local kids growing up in the sport, and it's been fun to watch them succeed. "I can say, 'I knew them when' and now they're millionaires," he said. "That's what makes you feel good - when they remember you and come up and talk to you."

Defending the Family Name
ZAMBONI ice resurfacing machines were invented in Southern California by Frank J. Zamboni nearly half a century ago. The company's website reveals how it works. First, a blade shaves the surface of the ice. Next, a horizontal screw gathers the shavings and a vertical screw sends them into a snow tank. Water is then fed from a tank to a squeegee-like conditioner, which smooths the ice. Dirty water is vacuumed, filtered, and returned to the tank. Finally, a towel behind the conditioner spreads clean hot water on the ice. The fascinating process mesmerizes crowds as the rough surface is polished mirror-smooth.

By the way: you're not supposed to call it a Zamboni. Call it a ZAMBONI ice resurfacing machine. The company defends its brand vigorously so that the name of the product doesn't become synonymous with the product. That puts ice resurfacing machines in the same category as bandages, tissues, and photocopies.

A Lot of Hard Work
Three times during each Red Wings game, fans can watch Sobotka smoothing the ice between periods, a skill that is learned only through years of practice. There are no schools or training programs for drivers of ZAMBONI ice resurfacers, and Sobotka said his only advice to people wanting to drive one is to start at local rinks and arenas and stick with it. He also notes that resurfacing the ice at hockey games isn't the only part of his job. Sobotka is also in charge of maintenance at the arena.

"I'm sure a lot of people would want my job, but they don't know what comes with it," Sobotka said. "You can't miss deadlines getting the rink open and the ice set up." Not only does he usually work seven days a week, he also works a lot of nights, weekends and holidays, too. But Sobotka doesn't seem to mind. "I don't really complain too much about it," he said. "You get used to it."

Sobotka's position is salaried, and he said he "makes a fair wage." In addition to the standard benefits, he occasionally receives other kinds of perks, such as tickets to the games.

Next Best Thing to an Action Figure
Sobotka has also become quite famous in the world of professional hockey, thanks to a Detroit Red Wings tradition dating back to 1952. "Two local guys owned a fish market and they were selling octopus," Sobotka explained. "Someone got this great idea about bringing an octopus to the playoff game and throwing it out on the ice after [the Red Wings] scored."

In later years, it was Al Sobotka who flung the octopus onto the ice during playoff games. (This practice is now strongly discouraged.) These days, when the Red Wings score in the playoffs, an 800-pound artificial octopus named Al is lowered onto the ice.

So if you want to drive a big rig on the ice, and wouldn't mind having a giant cephalopod named after you, consider a career driving a ZAMBONI ice resurfacing machine ... and dream on!