I never thought I’d willingly drive a Zamboni, but as I’ve learned, there really can be a first time for everything.
The first time I drove a car, I was 21. I got my first learner’s permit in Pullman after my college roommate offered to teach me to drive. During a trip to her hometown of Butte, Mont., she let me do figure eights in her Jeep Cherokee in an empty parking lot. That was the first and last time I got behind the wheel of her car, but our friendship survived. And yes, so did her vehicle.
Three years and three learner’s permits later, I finally got my license. There was a lot of fear I had to overcome along the way — merging onto freeways, going faster than 30 mph, driving at night or in weather that’s anything but 72 degrees and sunny.
I still have a ways to go on the latter, particularly when it comes to ice or snow. Of the 41⁄2 years I’ve been licensed, three of them were in Sacramento. But when I learned about the 2012 Zamboni School at Toyota Arena, I decided there was no better way to challenge my fear of driving on frozen water.
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On the morning of June 9, I joined four students far less bleary-eyed and bushy-haired than me — Tri-City Americans fans Sharon Kent of Richland, Fred Bray of Prosser and Mike Shay of West Richland; and Morris Malakoff, a Kent resident who once was the general manager of a Northern Pacific Hockey League team, the Puget Sound Tomahawks.
The class, offered one weekend a year, was the brainchild of arena manager Rob Gierke, who has driven a Zamboni for eight years. After researching Zamboni classes across the country, he was disappointed that so few of them seemed to offer in-depth lessons on how to maintain and operate a Zamboni.
My eyes nearly fell out of my head when I saw the 2-inch-thick Zamboni manual that each student received, but thankfully, we weren’t tested on motors or torque or the chemical composition of ice. I was reminded of my junior high science classes, however, when we watched a Zamboni instructional video from 1984.
After the film, Gierke, ice technician Frank Brazil, assistant ice tech Wyatt Van Tine and Corey Pearson, executive director of the Three Rivers campus, took us into the back of the rink, where we learned how tricky it is to get the ice perfect for skating. A sold-out crowd, as well as the temperature and humidity outside, can affect ice conditions.
Also, the water coming out of the Zamboni is 160 degrees because hot water spreads fast and freezes well. That means you must keep the Zamboni moving, or else you will melt a hole in the ice.
I prayed that person wouldn’t be me.
We went outside for our first attempt at navigating the Zamboni. There were two of them going at once around a little cone course behind the arena. When I climbed aboard, I felt my heart skipping like an errant puck.
“Please don’t let me crash,” I again prayed.
I also warned Brazil, who was accompanying me on my first trip, that there might be liberal use of unprintable words as I tried to pilot this massive machine.
But somehow, I made my way around the course without hitting any of the cones, though trying to figure out how much gas to give the Zamboni was difficult at first. I felt bad for likely giving Brazil whiplash as the Zamboni kept lurching forward.
My second and third times around were substantially smoother, though I still panicked when I had to put the Zamboni in reverse and back into its parking space. On one side of me was the other Zamboni — priced at a mere $90,000. I had to back up between cones and stop in front of a chain-link fence. I worried that Herald photographer Richard Dickin would get there just in time to snap a frame of me putting a Zamboni-sized hole in the fence. Luckily, he didn’t get any blackmail material.
After lunch, we finally got onto the ice. Because my coffee hadn’t sunk in yet, some of the instructions were a blur, but I realized I could steer the Zamboni into the boards without busting through them. On a second trip, we did a dry scrape of the rink.
The third go-round was the grand finale, when we turned on the Zamboni’s water and resurfaced the ice. For the most part, my trip was successful. I went too wide on a turn and missed a spot, which angered my Type A side. But the side of me that wasn’t sure whether I would have the guts to get on a Zamboni, much less drive one, was thrilled.
The next time I got on the road in my small sedan, I felt as though I could handle anything — raindrops, flashing yellow lights, vehicles in other lanes. But ask me again in a few months when the snowflakes start to fall.