Smooth Operator

Smooth Operator

Clear the ice! It’s Zamboni time.

Just what is it about the Zamboni that makes kids and adults alike stop and stare as it circles the rink, leaving a shimmering sheet in its wake? What accounts for its mesmerizing, even meditative effect?

“I think part of it is ’cause it’s, one, a big machine. And two, they see the cloudiness of the ice and then they see it nice and shiny afterwards,” says George Arnaoutis, rink manager at Yale’s David S. Ingalls Rink, a.k.a. The Whale. And, Arnaoutis adds, when play stops and the Zamboni comes out, “I’m the only show in town.” Arnaoutis knows Zambonis. He resurfaces the ice at Ingalls as many as 16 times a day. Not surprisingly, he’s a fount of knowledge about how to make the perfect sheet of ice.

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Most people understand how the Zamboni (more generically known as an “ice resurfacer”) floods the ice, since you can see water spraying and spreading out behind the machine. But there’s more going on under the hood. The Zamboni has two different water tanks: a 190-gallon flood tank and a 70-gallon wash tank. What you can’t see is the spray of wash water cleaning out the crevices, which is then sucked up for reuse. Also hidden underneath the machine is a long blade that shaves the ice. “You have to be able to read the ice,” Arnaoutis says. “For instance, I may shave more after varsity than I would after… this pickup hockey out here,” he says, gesturing to a group of lunchtime players out on the ice.

After the blade does its work, two augers transport the shavings to the center of the machine, where a paddle shoots them to a vertical auger, which carries them up and deposits them into a large holding tank. Like a dump truck, the Zamboni will back up to a trough in the maintenance area behind the scenes and deposit the ice shavings to melt and drain.

Anyone who has stood with their nose pressed against the glass to watch the Zamboni make its rounds knows the driver must trace a particular pattern on the ice in order to avoid crossing the same area too often, which would shave the ice too low. In addition, some resurfacers can’t make a tight turn. One popular method, Arnaoutis says, drawing a diagram on a scrap of paper, is to do the edge at least once, but maybe two or three times, then drive down the center and fill in the gaps with overlapping loops. But sometimes when he gets out on the ice, he can see that conditions will merit a different pattern next time in order to keep the surface uniform.

It’s also important to drive at a consistent speed. “People say, ‘Oh, I can make ice in 7 minutes.’ Well, yeah, anybody can drive fast,” Arnaoutis says. “Doesn’t mean you’re making a good sheet.”

The Zamboni’s blade doesn’t reach the last six inches at the edge of the ice, creating a bowl effect, with ice curving up at the boards. So the edges are cut separately every morning with an ice edger the size of a small push mower. Finally, a few times a week, Arnaoutis and his crew will chip by hand to remove ice that has built up on the boards.

The ice itself is only about an inch and a half thick, layered over nearly 18,000 square feet of concrete housing about 7 miles of refrigeration lines. Ingalls isn’t airtight, so it’s affected by the outdoor temperature, but Arnaoutis says other elements affect the quality of the ice as well: refrigeration, humidity, water quality, lighting, the height of the boards and how heavily the ice is being used.

The favored temperature for hockey ice is about 22 degrees where the ice meets the air, Arnaoutis says. Rinks used primarily for figure skating will generally keep the ice warmer—about 30 degrees—in order to allow for “more grab and spring.” That’s why you might have noticed Olympic workers skating out with buckets of snow or slush to fill the holes left by figure skaters before resurfacing. Speed skating creates a similar hazard, with ruts developing where skaters pass again and again. “A lot of times with speed skating… they’ll throw water down,” Arnaoutis says. “The water is actually warming the ice up so it’s not as brittle.”

The rink is midday quiet now. The pickup team has left, and regular practices won’t start for a little while. A couple of guys are working. A woman comes in to walk a few laps up and down the Whale’s unique concrete curves. There’s no hurry the way there will be between one-hour sessions later in the afternoon.

There are kids—even grownups—who would like to drive this, I note as Arnaoutis climbs up in the driver’s seat. Is it still fun? “Yeah, it’s fun,” he says with a shrug. “It’s a job, but, you know, it’s kind of a unique job because every time you go out there, it’s not always the same.”

He turns over his shoulder to back the Zamboni onto the ice. On his first pass, he lays down a swath of silver, a mirror that focuses a brilliant image of the LED lights high above. There aren’t many things you can repair as swiftly and beautifully as a sheet of ice.

David S. Ingalls Rink (The Whale)
73 Sachem St, New Haven (map)
Open skate info: Tues-Thurs 11:30am-12:45pm through March 8; adults $10, children $5; bring your own skates…

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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