What’s In A Game: Interview with the “Zam Crew” at the Prudential Center

New Jersey Devils ZamboniAs passionate fans of the Devils (or hockey in general), I know we’ve all spent a great deal of time in ice rinks, NHL arenas, or watching hockey on TV. We’ve all talked about the ice surface and how it affects the way the game is played, or how the players adjust their game in relation to the surface they are playing on. Whenever that TV time out pops up, or it’s time for intermission, or we’re going to a shoot out, we’ve all watched the Ice Crew drive by on those snazzy ice resurfacing machines- the most well known brand being The Zamboni.

But what is really going on? What are those guys actually doing? I was recently given the opportunity to interview our Head Ice Technician, Nick, and find out what it takes to be a member of an NHL Ice Crew. It is so much more than driving the Zamboni, and it is not as easy as our crew (who refer to themselves as the “Zam Crew”) make it look!

To break the ice (so to speak), I wanted to learn a little more about our head technician as a person. So I asked Nick what it was that inspired him to become a Zamboni driver, and what some of his favorite aspects of his job are. He shared with me that when he was 5, his parents took him ice skating for the very first time. As they were waiting for the ice to be resurfaced, he stood by the boards and watched the man driving the Zamboni, and he said to his father, “When I grow up, I wanna do THAT.” And for 7 years, he has been living his childhood dream.

For him, one of the best parts of his job is watching other kids stand by the boards with their parents… watching him with that same look in their eyes. Many times he will collect pucks that he and the crew use to repair the ice during stoppages of play and give them to the kids after the game.

Nick also loves the sense of family he and the rest of the crew share with the players. He is proud to do his job and give them a great surface to play on. For without the ice, the players wouldn’t have a place to skate. He has a great repoire with the players, and he says its a good feeling when guys like Kovalchuk, Brodeur and Parise recognize his crew for a job well done.

So how on earth do you get to be a Zamboni Driver? It’s not nearly as easy as it looks! You have to start somewhere, and that’s usually at a private arena. Nick started as a shift supervisor and worked his way up. In a private arena, there isn’t any specific licensing required. You pretty much learn how to make ice, and how not to destroy the ice surface! They teach you to drive the machine, and if you’re good at it, you get to keep doing it!

But to do it at the NHL level, you are required to become an Operating Engineer. Which means you have to be certified to do three things: operate an ice resurfacing machine, operate an ice plant, and make ice! The three classes you are required to take to earn that certification are as follow: Basic Refrigeration, Ice Maintenance and Equipment Operation and Ice Making/Painting Technologies. In the private setting, you will do all those things yourself.

At the professional,NHL level, things are a little different. There are two crews that maintain the ice surface in an NHL arena. There is a group of engineers that maintains the air quality in the arena and runs the ice plant, which cools the surface below the ice. And then there’s the Zamboni Crew that make/maintain ice from the surface up.

Now, in order to get a job in an NHL arena, in addition to earning the certifications, you really need to network. You’ve got to know someone who can give you a strong recommendation. Once you’ve got a foot in the door, you go from there. For Nick, he got his chance to become a member of the shovel crew. He did that for two years while he waited for a spot to open up as a Zamboni driver.

Which leads to the next portion of our interview. What is it like to drive a Zamboni? According to Nick, it’s very similar to driving a car in the snow. The tires are studded so that they grip the ice and prevent you from slipping, although it does tend to swing a bit as you go around the corners. Like a truck or a bus, the steering wheel has a “suicide knob.” On ice, it probably travels at about 5 miles per hour. The process should be slow and consistent. The more consistent you are, the more even the ice surface. The Devils’ Zamboni Machines are never driven outside of the building, although they might get speeds up to 25 miles per hour off ice.

Kim on the New Jersey Devils ZamboniHow does the machine work? It has a 4 cylinder motor and hydrostat system. Basically, that means that if you take your foot off the gas, the machine stops. It has brakes, but those are only used in case of an emergency. There is a blade in the conditioner part of the machine that shaves a thin layer of ice off the top of the surface. Two augers (or cork screw type blades) push the snow into the middle, where a flipper throws it forward into a vertical auger. From there, the snow goes into a pit. Behind the blades, two jets of cold water spray onto the ice and are mixed with the snow in the pit. The resulting slush fills in cracks in the ice surface and is smoothed out with a squeegee. The jets of water coming out the back are HOT. The hot water freezes and adheres to the ice surface faster, with less oxygen to create a smoother surface. The water used to make the ice is purified as mineral impurities or high oxygen content can make the ice brittle or soft. Off the ice, the remainder of snow, water and slush, gets dumped out of the front of the machine.

There are four different types of cuts the Zamboni performs. The first is called a Dry Cut. No water is laid down, only the blade is used to pick up snow and level the sheet of ice. The second is called a Wash Cut. Excessive snow/slush is used to fill ruts but no water is laid down. This is so another cut can be made. The third type of cut is called a Wet Cut. This is when the ice is resurfaced with a clean sheet of water. The fourth and final function of the machine doesn’t involve cutting the ice at all. It is simply called a Flood, meaning a layer of hot water is laid down to help build up the surface of the ice.

During a game intermission, we see two Zamboni working in tandem. They are performing a Wet Cut. When we go to the shoot out, the driver only resurfaces 4 lanes of the ice using a Dry Cut. Right before a game, the crew will perform a Flood to build up the ice surface a few hours ahead of time.

Before our interview, Nick let me take a ride on the Zamboni with crew member Al, who recently drove in his 100th regular season game! It was a lot of fun to get a new perspective of the arena (especially when it’s empty!), and have a chance to watch someone operating the machine up close. There’s a lot more to it than it looks!

Our Zam Crew are some hard working individuals. After talking with Nick, I’ve really gained a deep appreciation for all the dedication it takes to maintain the ice surfaces at The Prudential Center (remember, we have the AmeriHealth Pavilion, too). So, next time you’re at a hockey game, and you see that beautiful, smooth sheet of ice, you know who to thank!

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Posted on January 16, 2012, in New Jersey Devils, Prudential Center, What's In A Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This was a very interesting read. The more you know!

  2. That’s very amusing. Just another under-appreciated aspect of sports.

    I’d love to see a zamboni at top speed. I bet it could out-run a Toyota Prius.

  3. Nice write-up! I’m the Zam Driver for the Cincinnati Cyclones (ECHL). I appreciate the insight from a hockey fan. His motivation about the kids watching was also mine! “Speedy” was the Zam driver for the old Cincinnati Stingers (WHA) and he always smiled and acknowledged us kids. Now I always make sure to do the same!

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