Tricks of the trade from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Zamboni driver

The Air Canada Centre’s ice technician on what makes quality ice and how to handle a Zamboni

 

A Zamboni driver with a hockey net on the front of his vehicle.
(Kagan McLeod)

Anthony Kirkpatrick has one of Canada’s best jobs: he’s the ice technician at the Air Canada Centre, responsible for ensuring that the Toronto Maple Leafs and their visitor teams have the best ice to skate on. We recently asked him to tell us all about precision icemaking, driving the zamboni, and how he got the gig in the first place.


So how do you make NHL-quality ice?

The first thing we do is get the floor cleaned up. The engineers will turn the compressors on in the engine room, and we’ll start to chill down the floor, so that by the next morning, when the company that paints the ice surface comes in to do the painting, they have a cool surface to begin with. Once they’re done, then we kick into high gear as to what we do.

It’s the same kind of principle as how people make ice rinks at home, but we use a different method. When we build the ice, we don’t use hoses. Once the painters are done and we’ve got a good overall seal of the surface, we change the tires of the Zamboni to unstudded tires—they generally have studded tires on them on a day-to-day basis for hockey, so that you can grip into the ice and not slide around when you’re grooming it—and then we take that machine out onto the ice, and we start building with the spray nozzle system.

We start building at basically the water temperature would be like room temperature and then as you get a little bit thicker, and a little bit thicker, you slowly ramp it up. Ideally the water temperature we like to build ice is 150 degrees Fahrenheit. So we start at 60, go up to 80, 100, 120, 140, 160, as we go along in the process. It can’t be too hot because it’s too close to the paint, and there’s potential for bleeding. The paint could bleed. That’s why we do the ramping up of the temperatures.

We like three or four days [for preparing the ice for the hockey season]. We like to build it in very thin layers. We don’t like the water to sit on the ice and absorb oxygen and contaminants in the air. We like water to freeze almost instantly. It creates a denser sheet of ice and a more clear, transparent, kind of ice.

It’s important for us to have, obviously, a good sheet of ice for the hockey players—but we also need to have a very clear sheet for the corporate sponsors who have logos in the ice, and it’s important for people to see those clearly. So those are the two primary objectives.

The most challenging part, not only for the driver, but for the whole crew, is to make sure that we can maintain the recommended thickness of the ice for NHL hockey. Not so much for the Stars on Ice figure skating, that’s not as critical. It’s easy to give them lots of ice—it’s not easy to give them lots of good ice.

What qualifies as “good ice”?

Ideally for hockey, we like 1 inch. Anything from 7/8 of an inch to one inch, and up to 1 1/8 inches is the acceptable range. And we also need to make sure that it’s equal in all areas of the ice—that’s part of our job, to measure the thickness of the ice. The easiest way to do that is just with a drill and a drill bit, and a board with a ruler on it. You drill into the ice, down to the concrete, and you use your finger to, where you’re finger hits the ice, you can get the measurement that way.

How often are you measuring the ice?

We do ice measurements as often as possible, at least once a day. On an NHL game day, it’ll be done first thing in the morning, and then again in the afternoon. And we would build in areas that may be a little bit low based on those measurements.

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How did you get into into Zamboni driving?

I started in 1977 as a part-timer [with MLSE], and worked part-time until 1991, and went full-time on the ice crew. During that time that I was on the ice crew, there are organizations out there – the one in Canada is the “Ontario Recreational Facilities Association” and they do a lot of training for the work that I do, but they also do like Parks & Rec and stuff like that. And the American affiliate to them would be the “Star Network” in the US. So I’ve taken courses, with the theory of ice and practices, and I think that’s helped quite a bit.

I climbed my way up the ladder. I’ve been with the company for a long time. I’ve been on the ice crew since 1991. I never get on the machine for about 8 years, and then I started learning. As people started to either resign or retire, or leave the job for any reason whatsoever, you slowly move up the corporate ladder, I guess. Just over time, it just sort of fell into my lap.

So there’s no Zamboni-driving test or anything?

No, if the managers think that you’re ready, they’ll just let you go for it. They had confidence in my abilities to do it. There’s no real test out there that… it’s a matter of competency.

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How do you describe your Zamboni technique?

It’s kind of hard to explain, I guess. There’s a lot of little things that you have to bring altogether as you’re approaching the ice. When you’re coming off the ice, the water output that you’re putting down, the level that your blade is set at, how much ice you’re shaving off at the top of the surface, your pattern.

Your pattern is one of the most important things—not missing any spots, and if you do, sometimes you have to be creative and go back and get that missed spot.

You need to not only be watching your pattern and your water output and your speed, but you also have to be aware of the ice conditions beside you, in front of you and behind you. You need to be looking around and observing the ice, if there’s any deep cuts.

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What’s your pattern?

The pattern that we use is fairly common, it depends on the building and the way the guys have been driving. Some arenas have a Zamboni gate right behind the hockey net, like we had at Maple Leaf Gardens. At the ACC we have one in the corner. But the pattern has always been the same and when we’re building the ice, we don’t change the pattern, but we’ll overlap lanes a little bit more just to distribute the water evenly, just to make sure the water is being distributed evenly as we’re going.

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How fast does the Zamboni go?

I would say for an NHL game, between 3.5 miles per hour and 4 miles per hour. Generally we’re dropping about, as far as amount of water, I’d say about 100 gallons for each machine. We go with two machines for the NHL games, and that also applies to the junior hockey games as well. And that facilitates a quicker drying time for the ice, and it opens an opportunity for corporate sponsors to have their intermission activities going on.

For an NHL game, I’ve never really timed myself, but I think it takes about 8 minutes. With two machines, it’s fairly quick. We go at a speed that we’re comfortable with.

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What are you doing during the off-season?

Off-season is equipment maintenance, some painting. We do have a number of shows here at the ACC in the summer. We have the humidification system, and the air-handling units that can maintain good temperatures in the building so we’re able to attract concerts in the summer and other functions.

So you’re busy with the conversions crew to build the stage or to set up areas for meetings or corporate events, and corporate parties. There’s always something to do, and then you throw in some holidays here and there, and the summer’s gone pretty quick.

Do you get opening-night jitters when the players first take to your first ice sheet of the season?

It’s very satisfying to get that first sheet of ice, and you just look at it. And I take a picture every year. I’ve got the same picture over so many years. It just gives you a sense of pride and when you don’t hear any complaints about the ice, that’s really gratifying. Our sort of motto is “no news is good news,” if the players are not complaining, then that’s ok.

On occasion you’ll have players who will either compliment you on the ice, or a player like Tie Domi who will give you the gears—jokingly chastise us for the ice. It’s pretty satisfying when a hockey player takes an interest in the quality of the ice, what we do and what our challenges are. With a couple of players like Gary Roberts, Tom Fitzgerald and Mats Sundin, they were all very cooperative in giving us feedback as to the quality of the ice. So it’s important.

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Be honest: have you ever crashed the Zamboni?

The back end of the machine, as I was making a turn one time, it bumped the boards a little bit. I went in a little bit too deep towards the boards, and it was behind the net as I was making my turn, and I went a little bit too deep. I just bumped it a little bit, and it kind of shocked the people who were sitting there. With the studded tires, it’s still possible to do a fishtail, but that’s not something that we like to do. The studded tires do give you a sense of security, but you don’t abuse it as well. You don’t gun it around the corners.

It takes a lot of concentration. But you do get to a comfort level, the thing that I like is when you get to that comfort level when you’re driving around and you see a child with his face up to the glass with his Maple Leaf sweater on and just watching, and you can give them a little wave or an acknowledgement, and it’s just so satisfying to be able to do that, and it just makes their day.

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