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What’s the deal with that Zamboni cruising Tampa before Lightning games?

TAMPA — Picture this: You’re schlepping along Channelside Drive, Bolts jersey damp with perspiration in the Florida heat, trying to make it to the Tampa Bay Lightning game before puck drop. There are screams behind you, plus the belch of an air horn and a thumping Spice Girls chorus.

You’re not in Amalie Arena yet, but there’s a modified Zamboni. Right there, rolling through traffic, glowing cobalt and packed with a dozen hollering party people.

This is the Tampa Bay Icebox, the coolest —and most charitable — way to get to a Lightning game.

I had to ride it.

The man who invited me onboard is Mark Farrell, the 68-year-old retired businessman who dreamed up this contraption. A fan since the Lightning became a team, Mark lives in a swanky Channel District home four blocks from Amalie and shares season tickets with a buddy. Mark is the kind of guy who, upon hearing you’ve never been to a Bolts game, will try to give you his seat.

Like many retired folks, Mark wanted to spend time giving back. He sliced off the back of a Ford E-150 van and added on a used ice resurfacer. He hollowed out the front of the machine so passengers could ride on top. Amid the chaos of game night in Tampa, his souped-up, street-legal Zamboni somehow makes sense.

In addition to corporate events and weddings, the Tampa Bay Icebox prowls the bars and streets of Tampa before each home game in search of riders. After they’re on board, Mark asks them to make a donation to a pool that will be split among three local charities. He has about fifteen local business sponsors that also contribute.

During his first hockey season three years ago, Mark and his volunteers gave away $9,000 in donations. The next year, $16,000. Before this season ends, Mark wants to get to $20,000.

I met him at his home with Times photographer Ivy Ceballo last week. He introduced us to his team of friends turned volunteers: one to drive the van underneath the Zamboni, plus two others to lure passengers and keep them safe on board. Mark, armed with a megaphone and a walkie-talkie, would scout for potential riders from above.

We climbed the steps up to the top of the Zamboni, which looks like a penalty box on wheels. Then we lurched forward, zooming at 30 mph toward Ybor City.

My hair whipped across my face. I felt my knees lock and arms reach to grab the handlebars. Mark’s girlfriend, Aundrea Guess, tossed her head and shook her hips to AC/DC. Mark barked into his megaphone with an already-hoarse voice:

“Who’s going to the game? We’re taking a fun load of people tonight!”

We whizzed past the chickens and the al fresco diners waiting for their happy hour snacks. People on the street whirled around, mouths agape.

The diners waved their napkins. A few people sleeping on the sidewalk sat up and saluted. The pregamers at the bars raised their beers. The chickens, well, they ignored us. They’ve seen it all.

Seven Lightning fans chatted by the streetcar stop near Centro Ybor, waiting to take public transit to Amalie Arena. The Zamboni volunteers, Pied Pipers in blue and white, convinced them otherwise.

“Get on the Icebox!” Mark bellowed into the megaphone. “We’re heading to the game!”

The fans stumbled up the Zamboni steps in bewilderment. Among them: a group of friends on an outing, a couple heading to their first hockey match. One guy had the same long locks as singer-songwriter Hozier. As we peeled off, he tried in vain to save his hairdo. He was meeting a date at the game.

Aundrea passed out glowing foam sticks, pompoms and shot glass necklaces. One lucky rider strapped herself into the fake driver’s seat at the back of the Zamboni, complete with its own steering wheel and a button for the party horn. The rest of the passengers snapped selfies and waved at the traffic cops below, all while trying not to topple over. A woman’s hat flew off in the wind. A small price to pay for the fun.

At the end of the ride, as we pulled in front of the arena, Mark turned around and gave his pitch. Would his passengers be willing to donate to three local charities? Hillsborough House of Hope helps women in recovery from addiction. Lighthouse Ministries aids the homeless. Redefining Refuge lifts up youth survivors of human trafficking.

Mark averages $200 in donations most nights. The week prior, someone sent a Venmo for $1,000. But he looked disappointed as the last fans hopped off.

“Not good,” he said, peeking inside the tip jar. It was still early, though.

The sky was finally dark, and the skyscrapers and fans on the sidewalk smeared into a blur as we took off. Aundrea rattled her pompoms to Shakira as we skidded over potholes heading toward Yeoman’s Cask and Lion.

Five bros hobbled on. Mark coaxed another couple to join. Next was Hattricks, where we maxed out at around 15 riders. Elbow to elbow, we barreled back to Amalie.

“I don’t hear any horn back there!” Mark roared. The person in the fake driver’s seat beep-beep-beeped.

Well before we turned onto Channelside Drive, Mark delivered his speech. There was plenty of time to explain the charities, how they help survivors of human trafficking and homelessness and abuse right here in Tampa Bay. The riders seemed to be digging it.

While they donated, I spotted an acquaintance walking with the crowd into the arena and debated whether or not to acknowledge him. I ended up waving until he saw me standing atop the Zamboni. He cocked his head and squinted, like I was a hallucination. Then he scurried off into the game.

“It’s OK,” I wanted to shout down. “I can’t believe I’m up here, either.”

There was time for one more visit to Hattricks and Yeoman’s. I got my turn to honk the horn in the fake driver’s seat.

Finally, we staggered off the ride like roller coaster survivors, feeling a full-body buzz with wobbly legs and eardrums.

Mark seemed pleased with the nightly total — $205. Then he headed inside Amalie Arena, all warmed up to root on his team.

Ride the Tampa Bay Icebox

The Tampa Bay Icebox runs before each Tampa Bay Lightning home game. It begins to pick up riders an hour and a half before the start of the game. For pickup locations, check facebook.com/tampabayicebox or instagram.com/tampabayicebox. Rides are free and donations are encouraged.

To reserve the Tampa Bay Icebox for an event or inquire about becoming a business sponsor, contact Mark Farrell at tampabayicebox@gmail.com.