Longtime hockey fans from Duluth will recognize the guy on the right. They’ll probably recognize the one on the left, too, but this isn’t a post about me wanting to dress like the state bird, skate on stilts, and call myself the Maroon Loon.
No, the man I’m talking about is Walt, and I loved to watch him work. I’m not alone in that feeling, I’m sure. You see, Walt drove the Zamboni at the Duluth Arena. While many fans headed to the bathrooms and concession stands between periods of high school or UMD hockey games, I stayed glued in my seat, watching Walt guide the Zamboni through its looping patterns over the ice.
I loved how clean and wet the ice looked after the machine passed over it. I loved how he sped up along the straightaways and appeared to coast into the corners without smashing into the boards.
Years later I met Walt, who was an avid bowler at the alley where I used to work. By then it was no big deal. But had I met him as a child, it would have been akin to meeting Mark Pavelich, the former Bulldog who played for the 1980 Miracle on Ice team (if you saw “Miracle,” he was one of the Coneheads).
And so began my lifelong love affair with the Zamboni. Damned if I can tell you why it’s so fascinating, but I still stay parked in my seat between periods to watch them do their work. I pull for them to clean every inch of ice, and cringe when they’ve missed a spot and have to come back. I get mad when they dare ignore their faux pas.
It is crazy how much of my hockey enjoyment is wrapped up with the Zamboni. As a senior in high school I went to the state hockey tournament with a group of friends. It was held at the old St. Paul Civic Center, which was known for its clear boards. We had seats in the corner against the glass. Throughout the entire weekend, every time the Zamboni came by we were there greeting it and its driver, Mike. Twenty-some years later and I still remember his name was Mike.
One of my strongest memories of visiting the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn., is seeing the fourth Zamboni ever built on display. I’m secretly envious of my sister-in-law, Alicia, because she is a rink manager in Pueblo, Colo., and gets to drive the Zamboni. On a visit several years ago, she wouldn’t let me drive it, but she did pull me behind it as I imagined 20,000 people at the old Met Center watching me between periods of a North Stars game.
I’ve never been fortunate enough to sit behind the wheel, to experience what the Gear Daddies meant when they sang:
Now ever since I was young it’s been my dream / That I might drive a Zamboni machine / I’d get the ice just as slick as could be / And all the kids would look up to me.Walt knows what that’s all about. Lucky guy.