Smooth operators: New York Rangers' Zamboni drivers enjoy sports' coolest job

As the Zamboni drivers at Madison Square Garden, London expat Paul Curtis and Long Beach native Jack Durkin share one of hockey’s most crucial jobs

Long before he became one of the two veteran Zamboni drivers at Madison Square Garden, Paul Curtis, 52, grew up in the London district of Tooting – “The posh part,” he says, smiling – then moved to the United States after falling in love with an American woman.

“Met an American, married an American and divorced an American,” he says. “The American dream.”

Curtis, who now lives in the New York suburb of Yonkers, was working in a concrete union when he had a chance to join the utility staff at the Garden. When Frankie Reynolds retired in 2000 after 35 years of Zamboni-ing, Curtis got the job. He has missed two New York Rangers games in 17 years. He really is living an American’s dream – particularly for an American who loves hockey.

“I’m sometimes driving around thinking, ‘How the hell did I get here, and why do I do it?’” Curtis says during a break at the Garden. “People get excited when I tell them what I do. It’s really different.”

Curtis and Jack Durkin, 55, a 30-year veteran from Long Beach, New York, are responsible for tending the ice at the Garden, using separate Zambonis to resurface the ice before the game and between the periods in a procedure that usually takes about six minutes.

The resurfacing is the most visible part of their day, but it is also one of their shortest. They are among a crew of full-time utility workers at the Garden, with many responsibilities starting well before the game. On game days, for instance, they show up in the morning to resurface the ice before and after each team’s pregame skate.

Curtis walks around the perimeter of the rink, cleaning marks made by pucks – and the players themselves – off the glass, so the fans get a clear view. He also carefully inspects the boards, assembled and dissembled so often because of concerts, to make sure no hardware is sticking out. Both are among those making sure the ice is marked correctly. For skating shows, the ice is slightly thicker and softer, so skaters can get better grips with their toe picks.

About 90 minutes before a game the crew emerge from an office a half-level down from the event level at the Garden, five floors above the street. They man their Zambonis in a restricted area, adjacent to the visiting team’s dressing room, to make sure their machines are ready to roll. The tight area teems with security guards and NYPD officers, so those who might be thinking about borrowing one of their Zambonis for a joy ride won’t get very far.

Essentially, a Zamboni – so called because it was invented in 1949 by Frank J Zamboni, who owned an ice rink in Southern California – shaves the ice with a blade, collects the snow in a tank, coats the ice with warm fresh water and smooths the surface with a towel in back.

Although a Zamboni has headlights – because, of course, a driver might have to take it outside to dump the snow – these lumbering vehicles are not built for the road. Curtis says the top speed is nine miles per hour. In 2001, an Ontario man called Jimmy MacNeil drove across Canada in a Zamboni. It took four months.

But the Garden drivers, in blue Rangers windbreakers, become celebrities in their own way without having to take such an epic journey. Often, Curtis and Durkin have passengers – children from the Garden of Dreams Foundation charity – whom the drivers have given a tutorial on how to wave. As Curtis and Durkin do their job, the children play to those fans who have not wandered off for a snack.

“People get into it and stay with it,” Durkin says.

This is the fun time of year. The Rangers have qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the seventh straight season and for the 11th time in 12 years, which means Curtis and Durkin, who have other responsibilities in the utility crew, extend their Zamboni time.

The Knicks, again, failed to make the NBA playoffs, and the Garden’s concert-heavy schedule usually gets a little sparser in the spring to accommodate a Rangers’ playoff run. In 2014, they advanced to the Stanley Cup final, which they lost to the Los Angeles Kings. They feel a tinge of regret for the Zamboni drivers in cities whose teams failed to get into the playoffs.

“This is the easy time of year, because we get to see the ice much more than we have during the season,” Curtis says.

Considering the heightened stakes of the games, it would seem as if the job is pressure-packed at this point of the season. Curtis stretches his arms, as if he is limbering up for the challenge, then says, “It’s playoff time. Everybody plays hurt.”

He smiles, then says of the Rangers, “The only time I get nervous is when they’re playing on the road. I can’t watch it.”

Durkin says, “It’s fun pressure. It’s the best time of the year.”

As Curtis explains, their task is to make the ice surface, about 1 to 1¼ inch thick and 21 to 23F, as hard and as fast as possible. For one thing, they don’t skip spots. But he also says, “You want to get it as close as not-being-skated-on as possible. You want to take all the skate marks out of it.”

It would seem as if maintaining a 200ft by 85ft sheet of ice would be harder in the spring, since it is warmer and more humid outside – better weather for putting ice in drinks. Here, the Zamboni drivers get lots of help. Often, the thermostat in the Garden is turned down into the 50s on gameday mornings. The Zambonis are fine-tuned by mechanics from New Jersey.

Ice resurfacing has come a long way since Frank Zamboni had his brainstorm. On the ninth floor at the Garden is an antique resurfacer: a red, white and blue 55-gallon drum, with a spigot attached and a rack with a cloth towel. This contraption was used when the Rangers played at the old Garden at Eighth Avenue and 49th Street. It was slow work.

The Garden got its first Zamboni not long after the machine was invented, and it was driven faithfully, for years, by a man named Joe Crotty. He was revered. But then he got sick, so Reynolds, not exactly a hockey fan, took the helm. Durkin hopped on board in 1986, alternating with Reynolds. He has missed four games in 30 years, all because of deaths in the family.

“You never get sick,” Durkin says. This is just another aspect of what utility workers do here. It’s a real niche thing.”

Durkin grew up in Woodside, Queens. He says he was more of a New York Mets fan when he was a kid, because baseball games at Shea Stadium were easier to get to – and also much cheaper than Rangers’ games. But he has become so attached to his machine over the years that he called the Zamboni company when he was in Southern California to see if he could drop by.

They let him in. He is a longstanding member of an elite profession.

He is still enjoying his unique ride of a lifetime and has no plans to quit. Durkin says the Zamboni comes nowhere close to its top speed while resurfacing, but the thrills apparently come in other ways as he completes his resurfacing task.

“You put the jinx on the opposing team,” Durkin says with a mischievous smile.


Dave Caldwell in New York

The GuardianTramp

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