I had planned to take a few days off… but this nice tie-in appeared for Sunday’s front-page story on the 60th anniversary of the Zamboni. So, one more entry:
November 5, 1989
Non-hockey playing celebrities at the DECC: Zamboni driver Walt Bruley gets some help from the Loon, a UMD mascot. (Steve Stearns / News-Tribune)
Mommy, the Zamboni man!
Grooming the DECC rink has its rough, smooth spots
By Tom Dennis, News-Tribune staff writer
Walt Bruley has gray hair and can’t skate. But now and then at Duluth’s college hockey games, he gets the biggest cheer of the night.
Bruley, 43, is the senior Zamboni driver for the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. For 13 years he has piloted a boxy, funny-looking machine around the center’s ice rinks, resurfacing the ice between periods at University of Minnesota Duluth games.
And that gives him a certain measure of celebrity in a hockey-mad town.
"Kids see you in the shopping mall and they say, ‘Mommy! Mommy! The Zamboni Man!’ " he said. Good ice makes for good hockey games. So when the ice Bruley makes has been smooth and trouble-free, restaurant owners recognize him: "Ahh, Mr. Zamboni!"
Bruley smiled. "Of course, when the ice has been bad, it’s ‘Mr. Damn Zamboni,’ " he said. "But you do the best you can."
Driving a Zamboni is tougher than it looks. Steering with his left hand, Bruley uses his right to work levers regulating blade depth, water spray and other functions. The job is something like driving a truck and operating a crane at the same time. On ice.
And without being able to see, thanks to the awkward position of the driver’s seat. maybe that’s why Bruley, on his very first drive, smashed the Zamboni through the sideboards of the rink.
Then there’s "Zamboni elbow," the strain from working stiff right-hand levers. Drivers even have peer pressure to contend with. You’d be surprised how closely they watch each other, nodding with approval when one completes a resurfacing pattern right next to the exit gate.
But over the years, Bruley learned his trade. He learned to listen to the ice, to the noise that skates make. Good ice "chatters" more than bad ice does, he said.
Color and brightness count, too. "Every sheet of ice has its own personality," he said. "If it’s tough going in – if you have a hard time freezing it, say – it’ll be trouble the whole way through."
Just when you think you have it down…
"It was several years ago, UMD vs. the University of Minnesota, I think," he said. A championship rested on the game’s outcome. UMD was ahead as a period ended, and the crowd roared.
"So I was getting into it myself," he said. "I was driving around; people were yelling, cheering, giving me ‘high-fives.’ I was really excited.
"Then somebody threw a shoe in front of the Zamboni."
The machine choked. The stall that resulted was witnessed by thousands and delayed the game 10 minutes, he said.
Bruley learned his lesson that day. Driving a Zamboni is fun, he said. "But as soon as you let yourself enjoy it – bang! – something happens."
Today he takes pride in his work, but keeps a low profile. "When you don’t notice me, I’m happy," he said. "When you don’t notice that the ice is there, that means I’ve done a good job."
The same goes for the transparent shields that separate the crowd from the rink. That’s why Bruley and others clean the shields before every game, wiping away rubber streaks with a unique product called Puck Off.
Bruley sometimes works until 1 a.m., caring for the ice between late-night youth hockey games. Summer skating means that ice maintenance is a year-round job, too. No wonder people stare at Bruley in downtown Duluth in July: He’s usually wearing Sorels.
As a recent UMD hockey game was about to begin, Bruley punched the ignition and his Zamboni roared to life.
The machine lumbered out onto the ice. Bruley followed the classic Zamboni pattern: clockwise around the edges first, then up the middle, then around and around in ever-decreasing spirals.
Smoothly, professionally, Bruley left neither skid marks nor slush puddles in his wake. He made it look easy as he finished his last row right next to the gate.
Then he spun his Zamboni around in a racecar-like turn.
"OK, sometimes I like to show off a little bit," he said with a grin.