Hockey games are unpredictable. A game can be a shut-out or a shoot-out. It can be exciting or one-sided. Yet, no matter the score, one thing remains consistent — between each period, as the two teams skate off into the locker room, two large, blue, box-like vehicles slowly emerge with an unmistakable hum. The Zambonis have arrived.
With the crowd watching, transfixed by such an odd machine, the two Zamboni drivers circle the entire rink, leaving behind a new, shiny layer of ice on the surface. Within eight minutes, after each driver has made approximately seven rounds across the ice, the Zambonis are gone, not to be seen again until the next break.
Who are the men behind these machines?
Lead rink attendant George Arnaoutis, a husband and father who has been working at Ingalls Rink since 1980, was initially drawn to taking a job at an ice rink because it was a place that was familiar to him from a young age.
“I was a competitive figure skater, and when I was growing up I had to find a way to pay for some of my training, so I started working in [my local] arena to pay for ice time and coaching,” Arnaoutis said.
Jamie Lord, another Zamboni driver at Ingalls, had a similar early love for the ice, as he played hockey through college. He grew up around his Natick, Mass., hometown rink, and was a member of the University of New Haven team.
“They built a hockey rink close to my house, and I was a regular rink rat by the age of 12,” Lord said. “By 13 or 14 I was sweeping the stairs, and by 15 or 16 I was driving machines.”
At most Yale hockey games, Arnaoutis and Lord are the two men driving the Zambonis on the ice. A Zamboni is a machine that shaves and picks up the upper-most layer of ice, while at the same time depositing a fresh layer of ice.
Driving a Zamboni, however, is not just a matter of steering and letting the machine do the rest of the work. Instead, Arnaoutis and Lord must pay particular attention to the conditions of the ice before driving onto it.
“Ingalls is unique because of the architecture and design of the building,” Arnaoutis said. “It is strongly affected by the outside temperatures, so we have to make adjustments.”
Gauging the quality of the ice, in fact, is one of the most difficult jobs for a rink attendant, for not only does the outdoor weather need to be taken into account, but also the number of spectators in attendance (and the heat they give off).
“It took me a while to get used to [knowing] the correct amount of shaving and water that you put down,” Lord said. “We had a guy that we trained recently and it took him close to a year before we could let him do games.”
Arnaoutis is quick to point out that maintaining ice goes far beyond driving a Zamboni.
First, the rink’s ice must be constructed each year. In what is a complex process, three thin layers of ice are painted individually. The bottom layer is painted white, while the next two layers feature the hockey lines and the league and team logos, respectively. Then the thickest layer of ice is added — the layer that the rink attendants will monitor and maintain daily for the rest of the year, as countless intramural, graduate school and club games are played on it.
Despite the careful attention that rink attendants give to the Ingalls ice, both Arnaoutis and Lord also hold other jobs. Lord works for a technology company, while Arnaoutis works for the Yale Athletics Department. Arnaoutis also represents Jet Ice Ltd., an ice manufacturer that has sent him across the country to install ice for special events, including figure skating championships and the NCAA Frozen Four tournament.
But for both Arnaoutis and Lord, Ingalls has been their home for more than 20 years, and they bond with the hockey teams each year during their practices. In the past, the men’s team has even given each rink attendant a ring when they won the league title.
“The best part about this job is watching the Yale hockey team,” Lord said.
Careful not to put his fandom ahead of his job, however, Lord watches the games not from the stands but from behind the Zamboni gate, always ready to come quickly onto the ice should anything go wrong.
After all, not everything has always gone according to plan.
In February 1982, for instance, a fuel tank of one of Yale’s Zambonis broke while it was on the ice, leaving the machine stranded with the third period of the Yale-Harvard game about to start. Yale was winning 3-1 at the time.
After a few futile attempts to re-start the machine, the Elis pushed the Zamboni off the ice and went on to hold their lead, winning the game 5-3.
For once, the Zamboni was not pushing away ice; instead, it was the Zamboni that was being pushed away.
Talk about hockey being unpredictable.