U’s Zamboni drivers glide in arenas

Kori Koch

They don’t put on helmets, pads or maroon-and-gold jerseys, but there’s another team that takes the ice at Mariucci and Ridder arenas.

For Gophers hockey games, intramurals and other events, a crew of University staff members carefully resurfaces the ice rinks several times each day for much of the year.

Two full-time employees and eight student drivers operate three Zamboni ice machines to maintain a smooth, 1-inch-thick layer of ice. The team is also responsible for cleaning the University hockey facilities.

John Reich, a recent University graduate, said he joined the crew in 2001.

“It’s a cool student job. Who else can say they drive a Zamboni?” he said.

During hockey intermissions, the crew has 15 minutes to resurface the ice.

When they’re at their best, the experienced drivers said, they can be on and off the ice within seven minutes and even have time to wave to a few fans in the crowd.

The crew is headed by lead icemaker and University graduate Kurt Steinmetz, who began working there as a student in 1994. Upon graduation, he filled a full-time position.

Steinmetz and fellow icemaker Isaac Risbrudt usually drive the Zambonis during games in Mariucci Arena.

The two graduates said they take pride in the job. The student employees still get to drive the third Zamboni on the smaller rink in Ridder Arena.

An important task besides operating the Zamboni is the one they’re most-often asked about, they said.

“What’s the water bottles for?” Reich mimicked. Employees use hot water to clean out holes that support the hockey nets.

The process of maintaining the ice rinks is complicated, the employees said.

As resurfacing begins, a long blade on the Zamboni drops onto the ice to shave away excess snow. As the large machine drives, conveyors gather the ice shavings on the surface and dump them into a large bin.

A controlled amount of hot water spills onto the ice to create a consistent thickness and shiny appearance. Meanwhile, Zamboni brushes remove snow from the lower side boards.

The crew also regulates the temperature of the ice. Coils in the cement under the surface, filled with a chemical called R-22, absorb heat from the ice to keep it below 20 degrees, Reich said.

Students typically work up to 20 hours per week resurfacing both rinks, servicing the Zambonis, cleaning the arenas and interacting with the public.

Reich said he enjoys the hockey atmosphere, especially witnessing a behind-the-scenes look at Gophers hockey.

“It was a great experience working at both national hockey championships,” he said.

The only aspect of his job that Reich said he dislikes is the morning shift, which can bring employees in as early as 5 a.m.

“An early weekend shift can be rough, but they usually go by fast, because we’re always kept busy,” he said.

Construction management senior Justin Johnson said he has worked at the facility for two years. He said he loves hockey but not necessarily cleaning the arenas.

“My favorite part of the job is driving the Zambonis, which is actually much easier than it looks,” Johnson said.