The Zamboni holds a hallowed place in Canadian culture.
There have even been songs praising the glories of the iconic ice cleaning and flooding machine, and many people – without the skills to make it to the NHL – can still dream of driving a Zamboni in a big-league rink.
But what is it like to actually drive one?
“It’s fun, until you really learn what you’re doing,” said Jamie Pynten, who is beginning his eighth season driving a Zamboni at the arena .
It can become a bit of a routine, he explained.
“If you do the same path every day, it’s just like you’re a mouse in a maze.”
To deal with the routine aspect of driving a Zamboni, Pynten sometimes switches up the route he takes around the ice.
But for the most part, he and the four others who drive the Zamboni in Hay River do the exact same recommended route around the ice. Only one routinely takes a different path.
Pynten, a facility maintainer, has been driving the Zamboni since 2007.
“It probably took about six months for me before I felt really confident,” he recalled.
However, Pynten wouldn’t say it’s difficult to drive a Zamboni, noting he learned quickly.
“Normally, what we’ll do is we’ll probably spend a week training somebody and then hopefully they’re comfortable enough or confident enough to go on their own, but everybody is different,” he explained. “Like I went three days, and then I went on to three nights by myself instantly.”
Most people learn in three to five days and get comfortable enough to cover the surface, and then begin learning more, like blade settings.
Pynten explained driving a Zamboni largely involves learning the feel of the machine.
“It’s basically, I would say, more about feel because you’re sitting on the back. So it’s like you’re driving a boat because you’re steering from the back,” he said, noting that, while he has never actually driven a boat, he’s heard other people compare Zambonis and boats.
The 31-year-old also compares driving a Zamboni to towing a trailer with a truck.
“You’ve always got to drive onto the surface because you got to remember you’re always pivoting from the back, so you’ve always got to take wide arcs when you turn,” he said. “You only basically really learn by feel.”
Then there is using the accelerator pedal on a Zamboni and not using the brake.
“What I find the hardest part for people to learn is its hydrostatic drive,” said Pynten. “As soon as you let off the pedal, you instantly stop. So you got to learn how to feather your foot the whole time. You never use the brake. It’s all by foot feel, just like a lawnmower.”
In fact, he noted the only time he might use the brake is when he is dumping snow on an uneven surface outside the arena.
The hydrostatic drive means the Zamboni is in constant four-wheel drive.
Pynten said a driver also has to gain a feel for cleaning and watering the whole ice surface without leaving lines and snow.
That is particularly a challenge when learning to locate the Zamboni’s blindside – the ice on the right side of the large machine that can’t be seen by a driver sitting on the left side at the back.
Pynten sometimes estimates where he is on the ice by imagining locating spots on the Zamboni.
“We always use markings when we learn,” he said. “After like six months, I could just do it by feel, but I still use markings once in a while.”
In addition, sometimes he might stare straight ahead at one of the stanchions of the rink’s glass to know if the Zamboni is going straight, he noted. “It’s hard to tell if it’s swaying because you’re on the back.”
Pynten said people are interested in the Zamboni, noting, “Sometimes people want to go for rides. They ask about it.”
Pynten, who was born and raised in Hay River, said occasionally people watch the Zamboni as it cleans the ice, perhaps to see if a driver is taking a different route.
“When you’re brand-new, it kind of makes you nervous,” he noted. “But after a while you don’t notice.”