Maintaining ideal surface

Icemen cometh: MRC's Zamboni drivers smooth operators

Men behind perfect playing surface for hockey players, figure skaters
By Zack Miller | Mar 20, 2020
Photo by: Ken Waltz John Bennett on the Zamboni.

Rockport — It often can get overlooked, but if it was not for one critical machine and dedicated people who operate it, skaters would not have the opportunity to enjoy the always "smooth-as-ice surface" at the Midcoast Recreation Center rink.

The Zamboni is a crucial part of upkeep at the rink, and without the dedicated drivers of the rig skaters' satisfaction — as well as the surface quality — would be diminished.

Experience driving the Zamboni stretches decades for 78-year-old Hope resident John Bennett, to newcomer — as well as MRC tennis instructor and Belfast Area High School girls tennis coach — John Cameron, with Wayne Day's 10 years of service sandwiched between.

Two other faces one may see making laps are MRC rink manager Jesse Simko — who drives regularly during the day and Friday nights — and Sam Johnson, who works Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings.

John Bennett the "fixture"

More often than not Bennett is the one behind the wheel of the Zamboni, and, as he puts it, "a fixture here," since Bennett started shaving ice since the MRC opened its doors in 2001.

"I’ve been a rink rat all my life," said Bennett. "I grew up in the Springfield, Mass. area, and I started working at a rink when I was still in high school before they had Zambonis. [Then] when we had a shovel. I’ve been around since Zambonis started.

"The first Zamboni [I drove] was completely different than what we have now. It didn’t have a dump body to dump snow, but had paddle wheels to pick up the snow. I mean [it was] completely different. It was on a Jeep frame and with a 4-cylinder flat-head engine. You use to have to shovel the snow out of the front container. It was a bear to drive.

"I don’t know how I got started. I just happened to be skating there one night and they needed some help and they needed a driver, so I basically learned on the job."

The ice kept calling Bennett when he moved to the Midcoast in 2001 to be closer to family, where he found his current job at the MRC.

"We came in here to do some cleanup work, because my son has a construction cleanup business, and just jokingly I asked if they needed a Zamboni driver and the rest is history," said Bennett. "I’ve got the best of both world’s because I’ve got something to do in the winter and I’ve got the summer off."

Bennett said he does "around 90 percent of the driving" when it comes to piloting the ice machine, but he did train Day when he started 10 years ago.

"Wayne and I have been around for a while, and if it wasn’t for some health problems Wayne had he would be working more during the day too, but he’s only one day a week right now," said Bennett. "I’ve trained so many people and it’s always the same.

"You go over all the features of the Zamboni, and different safety items on it and what to do when there is an emergency before you go on the ice. When you do go on the ice you lay out a basic pattern and [tell them] ‘let’s see how you do,’ but nobody does well the first time. It’s just like driving a car. The first time you drive one it’s awkward, and then repetition. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to drive the Zamboni, but you have to be conscientious and think about what you’re doing. If something goes wrong you have to know what to do in order to correct it."

Bennett has laid down tens of thousands of layers of ice around New England in his time on the Zamboni, a pattern that is different based on the rink.

"At every rink it’s different, and it might be different for a simple reason of where the entrance and exit is for the Zamboni, because that’s what you set your pattern up on," said Bennett. "If the entrance is at the end it would be a little different. You make your board lap, or outside lap, and where you jut out and start doing the rest of your laps would start in a different place. What you want is to have the ice finished at one end and have the final strip just before you get off. If you alter the pattern around you’ll be making an extra lap."

The ice has been in Bennett's blood his entire life as a former hockey player in high school at West Springfield, college hockey at now defunct Burnett and semi-pro with the then Hartford [Conn.] Oakleafs, while also playing in men's leagues later in his career.

"[The semi-pro league] had teams out of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania," said Bennett. "It was a pretty good league and one step below [the National Hockey League]."

Financial compensation for his talents in the semi-pro ranks were minimal, or as Bennett puts it, "we have to work for a living, so let’s put it that way," but now his skates have been hung up.

"I stopped playing [hockey] when I was 71, because the aches and pains were beginning to be too much. I enjoy watching the guys, but it’s hard when you stop [cold tuckey]. Every once in a while I still have my skates here and think I’ll go out [on the ice]. My family plays still, so we are a hockey family."

Wayne Day: A decade of ice service

Compared to Bennett, Wayne Day had no knowledge of how to drive a Zamboni, or about the MRC, when he arrived a decade ago.

"I answered an [advertisement] in the paper and I had no idea what it was for. I’m retired, and I was retired then, and needed something to do," said Day. "I answered the ad and had no idea this place was even here."

The 75-year-old Cushing resident's background allowed for an easy transition to learn to drive the Zamboni.

"I spent 40 years in the heavy equipment business, so I was familiar with that," said Day. "[Bennett] taught me how to run the Zamboni. It’s easy, but it’s the pattern on the ice that’s the hard part. You have to cover the whole ice and in hockey you have 10 minutes from the time the gates open until they are closed, so you don’t really have time to mess up. We do occasionally mess up, but we just politely cover our mistakes and no one ever knows it. [It took] a week off and on [to learn to drive]."

The process of laying down new ice is made easier with the Zamboni, and can be appreciated more after the process is learned.

"What we do is shave the ice, and lay down a layer of water at the same time," said Day. "After we get it ready we put 190 gallons of hot water in it. We have a pattern that we use on the ice, and we shave about one-hundreth of an inch off the ice at a time.

"Wednesday is ice maintenance day, and [Cameron] goes around with the edger and makes sure the edges around boarders are even, or else it develops a gutter. I then go around with the Zamboni and level it. We try to keep the ice between 3/4-1 inch thick, which takes two-to-three hours.

"The hot water bonds to the ice better, and there’s no oxygen in it and you won’t get the air bubbles. You can do it with cold water, and we have done it with cold water, but you get air bubbles in it and it gets cloudy."

Despite shifts that don't overlap much, Bennett, Day and Cameron are a well-oiled machine "and don't even need to talk."

"We have a pretty good combination here because [Bennett] is pretty good with engines, I’m good with hydraulics, and that thing is all hydraulic driven, and [Cameron] is great with the edger, which is hard to pick up sometimes," said Day. "The three of us work very well together."

John Cameron: Scenery change

Cameron has been a staple at the MRC for four years, as Cameron worked the front desk before transitioning to his role on the ice, as well as teaching tennis classes.

The 63-year-old Belfast resident retired from teaching music in Belfast, and now has a more leisurely "career," along with coaching the Lion girls tennis team.

"I was looking for something to do," said Cameron. "After the crossword puzzle was done, I was lost. They had an opening down here for the front office, and I said, ‘Hey, I can do that I think’ and I didn’t want to teach anymore. Now I’ve expanded a little bit, and I work on the ice and teach some of the tennis programs here, and I haven’t done the office work since last spring."

For Cameron, Day and Simko did the training, and were "enormously helpful and positive, in helping me make the right mistakes I had to make."

Driving the Zamboni was a challenge at first for Cameron, as it would be for any newcomer.

"The problem in the pattern is you are sitting on the left side of the Zamboni and turning to the right," said Cameron. "The Zamboni has a lot of nose out there, and it’s a feel and timing thing. You have to do it several times, because you are making blind turns all the time, and that for me was the biggest challenge."

Once the "challenge" wore off, the Zamboni became Cameron's new musical instrument, as he became accustomed to the "sounds and feelings," emitted as the wheels turned.

"Sometimes it will 'shudder' is a good description," said Cameron. "There are two augers on there: a vertical and horizontal one. The horizontal one feeds the vertical one, which dumps it into the holding tank, and they have sounds. When they are working right they sound beautiful, but when they aren’t working right they make different sounds. They might squeal, shudder and other indications things aren’t right, which only comes from having done it."

Hearing and feeling the vibrations of the Zamboni only comes with repetition.

"You don’t know what it sounds like or feels like until you’ve been on it for a while," said Cameron. "[Day] kept telling me it feels a certain way, which doesn’t help a new guy at all. I need something concrete to go by, not just it feels different, but he’s right, it does feel and sound different when things aren’t the way they are supposed to be, but that comes with experience. I don’t have his 10 years experience, but I’ve made enough mistakes to know what he is talking about."

"There’s also two propane tanks on it. We run off one propane tank until it’s empty, and there’s no way of knowing it’s empty until it’s empty. One of my big fears when I first got out there, was to be on the ice and have it all of sudden quit on me. You can’t really park the Zamboni on the ice because it’s extremely heavy, and although it’s not hot it does produce heat, and if you leave it on the ice, it will sink.

"That was always my biggest fear that I’ll be by myself some day and it’s going to quit and there I’ll be sinking into the bottom of the 'abyss,' even though it’s only an inch thick. When the propane runs out you have to switch tanks, by simply throwing a lever, and that always scared me until I did it, then it was no big deal. There’s little details you have to remember, or things go bad very quickly."

Cameron's Zamboni fun wore off after "the first three or four times" and now admits "it's just cold," but the satisfaction is still there because, as Cameron states, "who doesn’t want to drive the Zamboni?"

John Cameron and Wayne Day. (Photo by: Zack Miller)
John Bennett. (Photo by: Zack Miller)
John Bennett. (Photo by: Zack Miller)
John Bennett. (Photo by: Ken Waltz)
Closer look at the Zamboni. (Photo by: Zack Miller)
Closer look at the Zamboni. (Photo by: Zack Miller)
Closer look at the Zamboni. (Photo by: Zack Miller)
Closer look at the Zamboni. (Photo by: Zack Miller)
Closer look at the Zamboni. (Photo by: Zack Miller)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Wayne A. Judkins | Mar 20, 2020 23:17

MRC is very lucky to have such talented and dedicated Zamboni operators!

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