What It Takes to Be an Olympic Zamboni Driver

PYEONGCHANG—In the back of PyeongChang’s Gangneung Hockey Centre is a door marked “Ice Resurfacing.” Behind it, a storage garage opens up to a massive, sparkling rink, where a group of men in matching salmon-and-grsy uniforms polish a brand new model 650 electric Zamboni between hockey practices. Their ID badges read “ice technician,” but they’re more commonly known as Zamboni operators. And without them, there would be no 2018 Winter Games.

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“This is the dream,” says 31-year-old Kyle Lamkey, who drives the Zamboni for the Maple Leafs in Toronto, where he lives. “This is the biggest stage in the world, so there are a lot of things riding on the guy riding on the machine!”

Stirn standing at the Zamboni entrance of the hockey centre.

Courtesy Adam Stirn

No bad ice

Every morning, the operators meet up with Colorado-based chief ice technician Don Moffatt for a quick breakfast of coffee and toast. With 31 years of Zamboni experience and three Winter Olympics under his belt, Moffat was well-suited to hand-pick them from the thousands of ice technicians around the world. The six men of Gangneung Hockey selected by Moffatt are all from the U.S. or Canada (he also oversees three Japanese drivers and five Korean Drivers at the Olympics) and were flown to South Korea based on their ability to work well together on a team, operate the machine with precision under pressure, and read the ice.

At 7:30 a.m., they’re shuttled from the Lakai Sandpine Resort to the hockey arena, where they immediately get to work. Their task: to ensure the rink’s surface is completely flat before the first hockey practice—a process called edging, where they use the Zamboni to flatten down the sides of the rink.

The rest of the day is spent doing routine maintenance on the “zams” and monitoring ice surface temperatures, which should remain at 21 to 23-degrees and can fluctuate drastically depending on the atmosphere inside, as well as outside, of the rink. In order to prevent the surface from becoming snowy or brittle, the crew adds two layers of hot water to harden it (If cold water is used, air will get trapped inside the ice, creating snow when an athlete turns on a blade.) Olympic ice resurfacing is a true trial and error procedure, with a driver continually experimenting with different temperatures and thicknesses.

If there was a gold medal [for being an ice technician], we would win.

In their spare time, the technicians grease the Zamboni machines, four total, and change their blades—a dull one can actually create ripples in the ice—to ensure a smooth, easy shave. The Zamboni also washes the ice when it’s in the rink, picking up foreign objects like hair (or, sometimes, teeth) found on the ice. And God forbid the machine picks up something bigger, like a puck. “A puck is the death of a Zamboni,” says driver Adam Stirn, 33. “It will stop it instantly. You can fix it after—but you can’t immediately continue driving.”

Ryan Hevern at Gangneung Hockey.

Courtesy Ryan Hevern

Each Olympic venue with a rink (figure skating, curling, speed skating) has a designated ice technician team, and the U.S. and Canadian crew at Gangneung Hockey all have experience driving Zamboni at their respective hockey venues back home. They operate one 552-electric Zamboni and three brand-new 650-electric Zambonis with upgraded high-capacity batteries and low-maintenance AC motors, rather than the standard 500-series found at most rinks. “This is kind of a maiden voyage,” explains Stirn, who started his Zamboni career at age 18 at Ferris State University, and now drives for the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. “There’s only, like, one [650-electric Zamboni] in the U.S. right now, so none of us have ever driven one. We feed off of each other, though, learning new techniques. The more we drive it, the more we become comfortable.”

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Their hours will get longer, later into the Games, as the men’s Olympic hockey teams near playoffs. (So far, most of the action has been at Kwandong Hockey Centre, where the women play.) But for now, the guys celebrate the end of a hard day’s work at Tom’s Bistro near their hotel, where they munch on pizza, guzzle down beers, and talk ice. “We all go out to get to know each other and share our Zamboni stories from back home,” says Stirn. “It’s really important for us to be close, because we rely on each other so much.” Since there are two Zambonis on the ice at a time, it’s vital the crew be on the same page. “We have no time to miss a spot and have to go back,” explains Stirn. “And especially [at the Olympics], on this stage, you don’t want your name being put on [bad ice], so we’re doing all we can to make it perfect.”

Ice is life

The Gangneung guys are true Zamboni whizzes, with a real knack for reading ice and determining how to smooth it out—a skill, they say, not every driver at the 2018 Olympics has.

Kreusch odriving Zamboni on 2018 Olympic ice.

Courtesy of Tony ​Kreusch

“We had a Korean gentleman go out on the ice yesterday and he didn’t take [any ice] off the rink,” says Stirn. “So that’s, um, you know a big component [of Zamboni].”

“We just have more experience than they do,” adds team member Tony Kreusch, 51, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado. “The key to driving the Zamboni is experience. This crew, this team, has probably driven 300 or 400 hours total experience in the field and has made 1,000 or 2,000 ice rinks. Koreans just don’t have that experience.”

Kreusch was practicing for a career in Zamboni before he even realized it. As a kid growing up in farm country in Pueblo, Colorado, he operated big tractors for cattle ranches. That experience parlayed into a Zamboni-driving job during college, at Colorado College at Colorado Springs. “I got pretty good,” says Kreusch. His alma mater offered him a job right after graduation, “so I started in the rink business right away.” He eventually moved on to a gig with the Colorado Avalanche in Denver, where he’s been the head ice technician for 18 years: “I don’t have a wife or kids, so this is my entire life.”

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Kyle Lamkey and Art Johnston.

Courtesy Kyle Lamkey

Fellow team member Art Johnston was a self-described “rink rat” at a local curling arena in London, Ontario in the early 1980s. He drove his first Zamboni at age 18 and “worked through the system,” he says, moving from building attendant to driver; he now operates as the facility equipment operator at Earl Nichols Arena in London. In December 2016 he got a Facebook message from Moffatt. “Don was like, ‘I want you to come to PyeongChang,’” Johnston recalls. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me!’ You know, I’m 46—I just knew this was something so different. When are the chances I’ll go to Korea ever again? This is the longest plane ride I’ve ever been on.”

He pauses, then adds: “I didn’t do the Olympics for any of this media attention, though. For me, I just love [Zamboni].”

The photograph Hevern keeps by his bedside.

Courtesy Ryan Hevern

Four months ago, 26-year-old Ryan Hevern’s boss received the call from Moffatt, requesting Hevern’s presence in PyeongChang. “I was like, ‘Holy F, absolutely, you can send me out,’ ” he says. “I still kind of have to pinch myself to really believe it’s happening.” Hevern, who started driving for the Minnesota Wild in 2014, has Zamboni in his blood. His father was a driver, too, and took Hevern for spins as a special treat.

“I was a kid watching my dad drive a Zamboni in awe, and now here I am at the Olympics,” he says. “I just want to make him proud. I brought a framed photo of us riding Zamboni that’s now sitting on my nightstand. I wake up every morning and look at it for inspiration.”

Jared Biniecki

Jared Biniecki

A father of two, Jared Biniecki says he checks in with his family in Vail, Colorado via text when the 12-hour time difference allows. “They miss me and wish I was home, and I’ve already bought them a bunch of Korean souvenirs and T-shirts,” says the 39-year-old, who works at Dobson Arena. “But getting to do this, with these guys, it’s still surreal.”

The camaraderie among the Gangneung Hockey Zamboni team on the ice has translated to a deep friendship out of the rink. The guys spend their days off in Korea together, sightseeing and exploring the Olympic village. Of course, they tend to end up at Tom’s for a beer.

But make no mistake, when game-time comes, the master-technicians are all business. As Kreusch puts it, “If there was a gold medal [for being an ice technician], we would win. We’re the best of the best, period.”

Adds Hevern: “We are all just out here doing what we love and it’s nice to have each other to lean on for support. We Zamboni drivers [may all be] a little weird. Not weird, quirky! But we’re in this Olympic journey together.”

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