Tug Gillingham of Bridgeport wanted to know:
“What qualifications do you need to be professional Zamboni driver?”
Our search for the answer led us into the chilly depths of Chicago’s United Center to meet head ice technician Dan Ahearn. He's called “The God of Ice in the Midwest” by a fellow Zamboni driver. Ahearn’s certainly earned the nickname. He’s been behind the wheel of a Zamboni for the 31 years.
Resurfacing ice is the technical term used to describe what Ahearn actually does on his Zamboni: the shaving, cleaning and smoothing of the surface of an ice rink. The Zamboni and other machines that do this are all known as ice resurfacing machines. But since Zamboni was the original, the brand name is often adopted to describe any and all ice resurfacing machines. (It’s become what Xerox is to copy machines or Kleenex is to facial tissue.) Dan Ahearn says there’s a good reason for that.
“Zamboni's the best," he said. "They’ve been building them the longest. The other ones are copies off them, to an extent. There’s a company, Olympia, that makes machines. A couple companies in Europe makes machines. But Zamboni probably has 75 percent of the market... Just in the Chicago area, there’s 60 rinks and probably 50 of them have Zambonis.”
While the Zamboni Company wouldn't confirm that number for WBEZ, it did say that, “the Zamboni Company sells more machines annually than [their] competitors combined. [And] it would be safe to say that [they] have the majority of the market share.”
You might be surprised to learn that operating a Zamboni requires no special license or certification, according to Ahearn, who also works as a welder and mechanic at the United Center. He said that most ice rinks that need a driver will likely show you everything you need to know.
But after talking with him, it was clear that a little bravery and an enthusiasm for winter sports are probably a plus for landing the job. Or, in Ahearn’s case, a lot of both.
When he was 12, he was refereeing a hockey game for younger kids. The guy who was supposed to resurface the ice that day never showed up. All Ahearn had done up to that point was park the machine.
“[So I think to myself], well the guy’s not there, and I drive the thing, so I can probably figure this out,” Ahearn said. “That’s the first time I ever did it - missed a lot of spots, but the ice got done.”
Still can’t get enough of Zamboni? Then check out these fun facts from the company’s website:
- The machines travel an average of three miles per hockey game, which makes sense if you think each resurfacing is 3/4 of a mile. Add that up over the course of a year, and these ice makers on wheels each travel close to 2,000 miles a year.
- Prior to the invention of the Zamboni machine, it took three or four workers more than an hour to resurface the ice by hand.
- More than 10,000 Zamboni machines have been delivered around the world.
- The machine’s top speed is 9.7 mph, and it can go from 0 to ¼ mile in 93.5 seconds. That’s according to an April 2005 issue of Road & Track magazine, which performed an actual road test.
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Anthony Martinez is a multimedia producer living in Chicago. Follow him on Tumblr.