From the Centre: Zamboni harder to use than it appears

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As the ice disappears outside, thoughts turn to the same inside for the arena as the clock winds down for the hockey surface. It is standard across the industry — once the ice-out date gets close, operators can almost taste the freedom; freedom from stopping what they are doing every hour or hour-and-a-half to run back, fill the Zamboni and flood the ice, freedom from always putting those spiky things on their work boots so their next vision isn’t laying on their back on the ice wondering why that guy is holding up 12 fingers, and freedom from constantly going back and forth between warm and cold environments so much that your eyeglass lenses fall out and your toenails have stress cracks.

OK, maybe life isn’t that tough, but there is a degree of trepidation for new Zamboni drivers (and even old ones) when it comes piloting this $100,000 machine around in circles with a six-foot razor sharp blade scraping the surface off the ice, which is only three-quarters of an inch thick at the best of times. Mix in having to constantly use the plunger to keep the augers from plugging, turning off the water, as well as raising and lowering the blade at each end so you don’t discover the goal crease now resides in your snow tank, and keeping one eye pointed forward and one backward so you don’t drive into the lobby yet are not leaving a cowpie-like trail of snow lumps behind you. Top it all off with a crowd of up to 700 people watching you try to co-ordinate this ballet of co-ordination and, yes, you can see where an operator would want to make sure they used their Mennon Speed Stick and combed their hair.

The Zamboni is pretty amazing, as first a sharp blade shaves the surface of the ice, and a horizontal screw gathers the shavings. Then a vertical screw propels the shavings into a snow tank. Water is fed onto the ice from a wash water tank, and a squeegee-like system flushes dirt out of any indentations in the ice. Next, the dirty water is vacuumed up, filtered and returned to the tank. Finally, clean hot water is spread on the ice — hot water is used to make a more even surface as it melts the old ice.

Of course, nothing ever goes wrong with this moderately complex machine — well, almost nothing. Some of the trials and tribulations over the years include:

•Running out of propane — always a crowd pleaser because short of a propane system malfunction, the crowd knows you have run out of propane. If you are good, you can blame it on the previous operator who didn’t fully screw the connection on the tank;

•Getting stuck — yes, even though you are on a flat surface with a four-ton machine, if your front wheels are on fresh-laid water and you are taking a big cut with fairly worn down studs, you, too, can be embarrassed;

•Not as common since we got a Zamboni that isn’t older than most of the employees but we have seen that spreading red stain across the ice from a burst hydraulic hose. Brings new meaning to cleanup on aisle three;

•Death at centre ice — this actually happened when the Zamboni was quite new: The drive coupling between the engine and pumps separated in the middle of a flood but the only way we found it after towing it off the ice was to split the pump unit off the engine;

•Lots of short snappers, like doing a flood with the board brush out, bashing into the boards, running out of water partway through or doing what you think was a great flood only to find an ice cream pail-sized pile of snow in your tank instead of 2,000 pounds; and

•From the archives — One employee remembers that when we still had the tractor mounted resurfacer and chain link fencing into the lobby instead of glass, how the hose hook on back snagged the fencing and peeled back 20 or 30 feet. Oops.

Either way, we look forward to the dry floor time of year, but with the first season of the new arena floor and insulation behind us, we can state it was 100 per cent improvement in ice maintenance — freezing times and compressor run times were greatly reduced and we look forward to many years of the same.

Neil Ostafichuk is the recreation supervisor at the Creston and District Com-munity Complex.