Guest Post: Confessions of a Zamboni operator

Puck Daddy

(Ed Note: Gerald Morton is a part-time Zamboni operator, PhD Candidate, occasional lecturer at Vancouver Island University and former hockey target. Anyone interested in contributing an article, column or post to the blog can pitch yo stuff here. Now, here's Gerald.)

by Gerald Morton

In nine to thirteen minute intervals I work magic. I transform a broken patchwork of rutted snow, too tired to shine, into a smooth reflection of overhead lights and parents’ hopes. When I’m finished my eight lap pattern, like so many shattered childish dreams, only the scars remain as memory. I have one of the coolest jobs in the world.

I drive a Zamboni.

My job is joyful monotony. I’ve been doing this long enough that my heart doesn’t quicken every time I climb aboard my machine. But every day I get smiles from parents, waves from children and smirking, half-waves from teens who aren’t too jaded yet. These are the things that keep me going when I have another toilet to unplug, or endless glass to clean. These bright, happy faces warm me a little when I am up at 5 a.m., edging and chipping the ice in a cold, empty building.

An ice clean renews me as well. The Zamboni is so cool it erases histories and personalities and turns the operator into a symbol of adoration and admiration—if only for a brief time. The resurfacing of the ice is normally considered the coolest part of my job. It is the part that gets the most attention, to be sure. And the visual appeal of the conditioner turning old to new is undeniably hypnotic. But, I think it is only a potent symbol of a larger, and more interesting, phenomenon.

I am responsible for protecting and renewing a transformational space. The ice surface is not simply a place to play a game. It is a space where ordinary children become hockey players. It is a place of magic and mystery, outside the boundaries of ordinary society, where rituals turn children into adults and grownups are able to ignore the rules of their lives and simply play once more.

I guard the boundary of that space, and am responsible for its eternal return. The true power of a Zamboni operator comes from the acknowledgment that the space is mine until it is ritually cleaned by me and my machine. Hockey players will stand at an open doorway, with no physical boundary preventing access to the ice, until the Zamboni guy blesses the space by closing the Zamboni pit doors. Of course, the kids sometimes push this boundary and try to enter the space early. But, like any good Shaman of the mundane world, I jealously guard my sacred space.

I yell at a lot of kids.

I am not an imposing man, but they scurry off the ice.

This is the real magic of my job. This part has real impact on the world. This part is more than aesthetically pleasing. It is socially significant. This part is more fundamentally cool. I protect one of those special places where socially accepted categories are able to be transformed.

In the study of myth and ritual, these are called liminal spaces. They are betwixt and between the ordinary places of the world. They are not just places of habit. They are spaces of true ritual. In our contemporary world, often bereft of the sacred, hockey is a transcendent symbol. Hockey connects us across time and space. It is a symbolic tool of nation building. And that symbol made manifest is the hockey player. To transcend to the category of hockey player you need the proper set of rites. It requires correct, and special, dress. It requires a guide, an older figure to lead the way. It needs special advisers, educated in all the rules and rituals, to overseer these rites.

And it needs a place set apart from the ordinary world. It requires a sacred space.

We live in a reality that is socially constructed. Most of our truths are simply unacknowledged cultural agreements. But don’t assume reality is less formidable because of this. It isn’t. It takes an entire community a prolonged history to construct the categories we accept as important. And it takes a community to ensure these categories can be transcended. The arena is a sort of secular church. And the ice sheet is the sacred heart of that building. On any sheet a dream of becoming a hockey player can be realized. A virtual category in a child’s mind can be manifested as embodied reality. They can transcend categories and become an accepted part of a new and powerful imagined community. A child can transform into a hockey player. And, in a world with few definitive markers of adulthood, a youth can start the journey to being an adult.

In other words, operating a Zamboni is a cool job because I am wholly responsible for creating and maintaining a sacred space in a world too short on magic.

Plus, I get to drive around in circles and wave at excited little kids.

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