Zamboni drivers pave the way for games

University staff and students maintain arenas and prepare the ice for Gophers hockey.

Senior economics major Scott Judd drives a zamboni to clean up the ice after a free skate time at Mariucci Arena on Monday. Judd has been a zamboni driver for two years after going through a two-month training.

Image by Chelsea Gortmaker

Senior economics major Scott Judd drives a zamboni to clean up the ice after a free skate time at Mariucci Arena on Monday. Judd has been a zamboni driver for two years after going through a two-month training.

by Betsy Helfand

The University of Minnesota’s men’s and women’s hockey teams are currently both ranked No. 1 in the nation.

But before the players hit the ice on game day, Lon Sorenson and his team of student workers have work to do.

“If I don’t do my job, we don’t have a game,” he said.

Sorenson is the lead icemaker at the University, and without him, the games wouldn’t happen.

“If the band doesn’t show up, we can still have a game,” he said. “If the cheerleaders don’t show up, we can still have the game. If the fans don’t show up, we can still have a game. Ultimately, the way I look at it is: If we don’t have ice, we don’t have a game.”

Sorenson’s job requires him to arrive at the facilities early — many days at 6 a.m. — and leave late.

There is no typical day on the job, he said. Sometimes he and his team have to run the Zambonis up to 13 or 14 times a day.

The University has three Zambonis, which must be carefully maintained.

Economics senior Scott Judd played hockey when he was younger, and now he works with Sorenson.

He said when he was growing up, he didn’t realize the process that went into creating a fresh sheet of ice — it was something he took for granted when he was playing hockey.

The work that Sorenson, fellow icemaker Isaac Risbrudt and their team do is something that generally goes unnoticed by fans but not by women’s hockey head coach Brad Frost.

“They do a great job with our ice, and there’s nothing better as a hockey player than stepping out on a fresh sheet of ice,” Frost said. “They’re kind of some unsung heroes within our program.”

And it doesn’t go unnoticed by impartial outsiders, either.

“A lot of the referees say that they believe that we are probably one of the top ice [sheets] in college hockey,” Sorenson said.

Learning the process

Before students are allowed to drive the Zambonis, they go through an extensive training process.

“We’re relying on a student to drive a $100,000 piece of equipment,” Craig Flor, facilities director of Mariucci and Ridder arenas, said.

Because of that, training is about a month long, he said.

Sorenson said students don’t start out resurfacing the ice. First, they learn about the facilities: the layout, the way to properly clean them and the way to open and close them, among other things.

Many students need a full month of training to master the Zamboni.

“It took me a couple days to learn how to drive,” nutrition science senior Erica Revering said, “but it took a month before I was really comfortable doing it and didn’t have to really think about things the entire time.”

Flor said part of the challenge of driving the Zamboni is its structure.

“If you think of a blind spot in a car, the whole thing is blind,” Flor said. “It can be very intimidating being up on it because of what you can’t see.”

But the difficulty of manning the Zamboni isn’t just about mechanics.

“I don’t think it’s difficult to operate the machine, but it’s a very … complex machine that does need a lot of your senses to drive,” Sorenson said.

While driving, Zamboni operators need to know when to lay water and when to shave ice.

Sorenson said the ideal ice thickness is anywhere from 1.25 to 1.5 inches.

“We’ve got to have thick enough ice. I can run a game on thick ice,” he said. “I can’t run a game on thin ice.”

It’s a balancing act because while thicker ice is playable, the refrigeration system has to work harder and costs more.

Sport management senior Lucas Van Nevel said workers drill into the concrete and use a ruler to measure the thickness of the ice.

They repeat the process every Monday night to make sure everything is as it should be.

Student workers

Van Nevel said he always saw Zambonis as a kid and hoped he would someday be able to drive one.

Now, he drives them in front of thousands of Gophers fans at men’s and women’s games.

Though game driving is typically reserved for the two full-time drivers, student workers get the opportunity on occasion.

“They are definitely students that … have shown that they know how to operate the machine at a higher level and they also have to ability to do the process in front of a lot of people,” Sorenson said.

Van Nevel said he’s driven close to 10 to 15 times this season

He said the job can be a little nerve-wracking at times, but he said he’s become more comfortable as he’s done it more.

“I can remember my first time last year. … I was very nervous to go out in front of 10,000 fans, but once you get out there, you remember it’s just like driving when there’s nobody here,” he said.

Driving the Zambonis isn’t the only job the student workers have to complete.

“It’s actually a small part of what we do,” Revering said. “It’s important, but we also do a lot of arena maintenance and cleaning.”

But for workers who’ve been on the job for years, driving during a game is a reward.

“I feel very honored that my boss has given me this responsibility,” Van Nevel said. “For him to be able to trust me is very, very rewarding.”