The 1.6-liter industrial engine fires up, and the unmistakable 6,500-pound box-shaped machine creeps down the labyrinthine hallways under the stands at the United Center. “It’s just like getting in your car and driving to work,” says Danny Ahearn, the Blackhawks’ longtime Zamboni operator. Only difference is, his commute takes roughly 30 seconds and ends in front of a 200-by-85-foot expanse of blinding white ice. Soon we’re floating along, surrounded by empty seats and championship banners on a 4.5-mile-an-hour joy ride.
It’s 11 a.m. on a game day, and Ahearn has to smooth the ice after the team’s morning skate-around. The Bulls were at home last night, which means Ahearn was here until well past midnight scraping off the dirt and spilled beer that seeped under the cracks of the hardwood basketball floor laid on top of his once-pristine ice. Only the security guards were still around by the time Ahearn left the building.
He understands the responsibility he carries as a member of an elite fraternity of professional Zamboni drivers. He knows that, for many red-jerseyed fans, watching him glide along the rink in between periods is as much a part of the game experience as $10 beers and bodychecks into the boards.
Zamboni machines, after all, are arguably the only pieces of equipment in all of sports that have a cult following. Technically, they are called ice-resurfacing machines. But over the past five decades, Zamboni, the name of the company that invented them and dominates the market, has become the de facto generic term. Songs have been written about them. When former Chicago Stadium owner Arthur Wirtz first saw the machines in 1950, he feared that their allure would be so great that fans wouldn’t hit the concession stand during intermission. “You watch people during the game and they’re just fascinated,” says Ahearn.
Along with a dry sense of humor and a magnificent mustache (as far as Chicago sports ’staches go, his ranks up there with Quenneville’s and Ditka’s), Ahearn is defined by his passion for all things Zamboni. “This is a 1961 Model F,” the 58-year-old Lombard resident says, excitedly pointing to an old picture in his cramped office at the United Center. “It’s the first machine I ever drove.”
He was a rink rat as a kid, volunteering for odd jobs, such as cleaning out the Zamboni, to score free ice time. And then, before one youth game at the YMCA’s outdoor rink in Elmhurst, the scheduled driver didn’t show up. Just 12 years old, Ahearn stepped in, and his fate was sealed: He became a regular behind the wheel. A decade later, in 1980, Chicago Stadium called.
Over the course of 36 years and about 1,500 NHL games, he has evolved into a sort of ice whisperer. “In between periods, I’ll walk out [into the stands] and look at the ice, and I’ll know exactly what I have to do,” says Ahearn, who worked the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and is a member of the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame. “We do everything humanly and mechanically possible to make the best sheet of ice.”
Ahearn and his trusty Zamboni perform multiple jobs at once with each pass. First, the machine’s gigantic blade cuts off the top layer of ice, as a couple of screw-like augers, one horizontal and one vertical, collect and deliver shavings into a tank. Then, the Zamboni washes the ice, collecting the dirty water with a squeegee. Next, warm water is laid down to create a glossy new layer a 32nd of an inch thick. (Warm water? If you’re a science nerd, you know it has less air, which makes it refreeze slower, creating a harder surface.)
While that might sound simple enough, Ahearn must contend with myriad factors to get the rink game-ready. The biggest enemy is humidity, which frosts the ice and causes more of it to kick up during play. “If the ice isn’t cut up too bad, we’ll cut back on the water a little,” Ahearn explains. “Other times, we’ll flood the crap out of it.”
Occasionally, the Zamboni will pick up stray objects, like the time a Blackhawks player’s knocked-out tooth—Ahearn can’t recall whose—ended up in the machine’s filter system. “He couldn’t find it,” says Ahearn. “And I’m like, ‘Here it is!’ ”
As I perch in the passenger seat (I had briefly considered asking to drive the behemoth, but once I saw all the cockpit-like levers, I figured I would surely crash it), Ahearn whirs along, pumping the lever that operates the snow breaker, a device that releases shaved ice from the jaws of the blade. He effortlessly maneuvers around the boards, then cuts a 200-foot line as straight as the crease in a marine’s pants. At one point, Ahearn, who used to race stock cars, shows off by doing doughnuts near center rink.
I lean close to talk over the hum of the engine, and it feels like we’re just two guys on barstools chatting atop a giant riding lawn mower. I ask Ahearn what he thinks about the operator in North Dakota who got tossed in jail last year for driving a Zamboni drunk.
“You’d have to be pretty stupid,” he says. “But I’ve definitely seen guys on community rinks who shouldn’t be driving the machines.”
I ask if he’s ever had a Zamboni accident. “No,” he replies proudly. “But it’s definitely possible. I mean, you’re driving on ice. If you turn too fast, you’re going to [crash]. We just take our time. That way we do a better job and the machine does what it’s supposed to do.”
It takes him about 10 minutes to finish. Once back in the garage, Ahearn pulls a lever that dumps the shaved ice into a pit, where hoses will douse it with hot water to melt it. After the evening skate-around, he’ll go through the whole process again.
Between periods at Hawks games, two Zamboni machines operate at once to speed up the cleaning (they do it in six and a half minutes). Ahearn’s counterpart is Nick Cotsilis, a dark-haired 36-year-old, who is resting in a comfy chair in the garage as I get ready to leave. “I remember watching [Ahearn] at the old stadium when I was five years old,” Cotsilis recalls. “And I told my dad, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”
For some, the dream is to skate with the speed of Bobby Hull or Patrick Kane. Others are happy to seek their glory in the slow lane.