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Zamboni Man a hit with residents

Erika Sherk
Northern News Services

Hay River (Nov 20/06) - "Now ever since I was young it's been my dream...that I might drive a Zamboni machine."

The twangy country music pours from the giant speakers into the ice arena.
NNSL Photo/graphic

Mark Stephens on the Zamboni outside the Ben Sivertz Arena, where the machine is always ready for ice time. - Erika Sherk/NNSL photo

Mark Stephens couldn't resist playing The Zamboni Song for this reporter - all part of a well-rounded interview with a driver of those famous machines.

Stephens has been driving a Zamboni at the Ben Sivertz Arena in Hay River for about seven years now.

His first trip out onto the ice was intimidating, he said.

"All those people watching while I'm trying to remember everything I'm supposed to do," he said with a laugh.

The stage-fright faded quickly, he said. Soon he was adding a few flourishes.

"You've got to perform a little," he said. "I throw in an extra turn sometimes, you can almost do a donut with [the Zamboni]. People are always real surprised, they don't think it can turn like that."

It's not all fancy driving though. It's a tricky process, he said, trying to keep the ice even and smooth when it doesn't always want to cooperate, knowing what sort of surface each ice sport prefers and filling in the holes -- the never-ending scourge of the ice.

The big white machine works by using cold and hot water to wash and smooth the ice and a scraper blade to keep the ice level.

His favourite part of driving the Zamboni is a ritual he has with local young hockey players, he said.

"When I drive by the [players'] box, they'll stick their hands out and I slap them as I go by," he said.

"I think it's neat. They respect the Zamboni and they respect me.

"They'll say hi, but they don't call me Mark. It's 'Hi, Mr. Zamboni Man!"

When on duty, Stephens takes the Zamboni out anywhere from two to seven times.

"For tournaments it's a lot more," he said.

It takes about 15 minutes to smooth the ice, he said.

"Broomballers like the ice just a little bit rough," he said.

"We make it really smooth for the old-timers and really, really smooth for figure skaters."

If, like in the song, it's your dream to drive a Zamboni, Stephens said you're going to need a class 5 driver's license.

"As long as you're able to drive a vehicle you can get the hang of the Zamboni," he added.

You have to get used to the driver's seat though, he said. "You're right at the back of the bus, can't see what's in front of you."

In the arena, the music plays on. "I want to drive a Zamboni...hey! I want to drive a Zamboni...yes I do!"

And then it was back to work for one Hay River Zamboni Man.