Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Yesterday, I rode the Zamboni.
If you're from a foreign country, such as New Zealand or Alabama, that may sound like a euphemism for some sort of salacious act, but it's not. A Zamboni is the machine used to clean and re-surface the ice between periods of a hockey game. Here's a picture of a couple of them in action before a game.
How did I get to ride the Zamboni? Good question. Allow me to explain.
My birthday was Monday. I was - and am currently - fifty-two. MY WIFE, marvelous creature that she is, wanted to do something wonderful and different for my birthday. So, when I awoke on Monday, she greeted me with a Ring Ding into which a candle had been stuck. That was certainly peculiar at 7 o'clock in the morning, but more was ahead.
She then handed me a gift bag. I reached in to get whatever was there. My hands found a coffee mug with a Boston Bruins logo on it. Inside of the mug were two tickets to the game versus Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Very nice, if a bit puzzling. I'm a fan of all sports, so hockey is among them, but it isn't my favorite sport among the "major four" North American sports (baseball, football, basketball, hockey) and MY WIFE knows this. As great a game as it can sometimes be, I'd have to say that hockey finishes fourth out of four on a fairly regular basis. When I was younger, it was sometimes higher, but so was I.
Anyway, I expressed my honest thanks for the mug and the tickets. The Bruins are hot stuff again, in first place in their division. They have a real chance to win the Stanley Cup, which would be the first time in over 35 years. The seats were in the loge, fairly costly. It would be a fun evening, for sure.
MY WIFE then said, "If you went to a hockey game, what would you like to do most of all?"
I knew something was up, but I couldn't imagine what. I thought about an answer to the question, but I was drawing a blank. I had just awakened, hadn't had any coffee, and also needed to take a whiz. She saw the vacant look in my eyes and re-phrased the question.
"What do they have at hockey games?"
I thought about it for a moment.
"Well, yes, but what else?"
"And what do they use to clean the ice?", she said, as though prompting a not-particularly-bright four-year-old.
The light was still a ways off from dawning on Marblehead.
She exclaimed, "You're going to ride the Zamboni!"
To say I was dumbfounded would be an extreme understatement. I was not only dumbfounded, I was bemused, flummoxed, befuddled, wondering, confounded, puzzled, astonished, and also totally excited. I had no idea how this was going to happen, but if she said I was going to ride the Zamboni, I knew it was the truth. When MY WIFE wants to make something incredible and fun take place, she will make it happen. She had previously shanghaied me, by the dictionary definition, and we spent a couple of days aboard a boat named The Golden Slipper in Boston Harbor. Not once, but twice, she had pulled off major surprise parties for my birthday without me having even the faintest idea of what was about to happen. If she said I was riding the Zamboni, then riding the Zamboni I would be.
I had woken up five minutes ago and now I knew I was going to be gliding over the ice at TD Banknorth Garden in front of more than 17,000 people tomorrow night. Life is exceedingly strange some mornings. I kissed her, then went to take that whiz.
After I returned from the bathroom, MY WIFE explained that she had previously attempted to do this for me, as a Christmas present, but wasn't able to make it happen at that time. However, she had kept at it and found out that the day after my birthday was a game night, and that the slot for riding the Zamboni that evening was open. Apparently, the Bruins sell rides on the Zamboni every night during the season. In order to ride it, you need to make a contribution to the Boston Bruins Foundation, a charitable organization run by the team. MY WIFE made a donation, so I was going to be the lucky fan who got to ride the Zamboni between the first and second periods on Tuesday evening.
Oh, I guess I left you hanging at one point. If any of you were wondering why MY WIFE put a candle in a Ring Ding, it's because it looks like a hockey puck. See?
MY WIFE is unique, and I love her dearly.
We had to be at The Garden by 6pm for instructions. The game was scheduled for a 7:00 start. MY WIFE met me at the west entrance to The Garden at 5:45. We entered and went upstairs to level four. We had been instructed to meet Liz Serpico of the Boston Bruins Foundation, at their table near the entrance to the loge seats.
After introducing ourselves, she explained that we had to be back at her post with approximately 10 minutes remaining in the first period, at which time we would be taken into the “backstage” area of the arena to await my ride. She had me complete a waiver form absolving the Bruins from any lawsuits should I somehow fall off of the Zamboni, get sucked underneath it, and become part of the ice surface for the second period. Then we went to our seats.
We sat in Loge 6, which is a section more-or-less behind one of the goals. They were great seats for a hockey game. We were high up enough to have a magnificent view of the entire ice surface, but also close enough to actually hear some of the sounds of the game, such as that made by skates shaving ice when a player put on the brakes before hitting the boards.
I had been to Bruins games before, of course, but not for a few years. And this was MY WIFE's very first professional hockey game. I had forgotten what an intimate game hockey can be. What I mean is that, unlike some other sports, a hockey game continually brings the action close to the spectator. The physics of the game, and the construction of the rink, tend to make much of the action happen on the edges of the playing area, near to the fans. When players chase after the puck, their faces often are right up against the glass partitions that serve as a barrier, and fans in the first row often pound on the glass at that point, usually when an unlucky opposing player is trapped there. Fans probably feel more a part of the action in hockey than, say, basketball. Rarely does a Kobe Bryant or Paul Pierce get physically interacted with by the rabid crowd.
As we watched the game unfold, I had one eye on the clock. Stoppages in a hockey game are usually fewer than in most sports, so the game clock tends to move rather quickly. I wanted to be sure we made it to our designated spot at the appointed time. When a whistle blew at the 12-minute mark, we said, “Excuse me” to the other folks in our row and left. I assume they wondered why we were apparently leaving the game with only 8 minutes having elapsed.
Back at the charity’s table, we were met by a young woman named Stephanie. She would be taking us downstairs to the Zamboni. We had to wait for the other lucky rider to show up. There are actually two Zamboni machines used during each intermission, and I would be riding one, he the other.
To my delight, the other guy turned out to be a grown-up, too. I was somewhat worried that a little kid might be the other rider, in which case I would look somewhat goofy by comparison. Well, goofier than usual, anyway. He was also there with his wife. In addition, they had brought their three-month-old son to the game, dressed in a baby bruin costume. Too cute. Here’s a picture.
Stephanie now led us down into the bowels of The Garden, and a fascinating quick tour was given. She pointed out where the opposing team bus parks, and brought us past various locker rooms, food prep areas, and storage spaces. The Garden is used for multiple sports, of course, and when the rink is not in use, the famous parquet floor of the Boston Celtics has to be laid down for basketball games. We were shown where they kept it stacked, and it was quite odd to see and recognize various parts of it in its unconnected fashion.
With the backboards down, MY WIFE took the opportunity to slam one through the rim.
And then, the Zambonis!
I was told that I would ride the orange Zamboni, with the other fellow on the yellow one. As it neared intermission, they rolled out into position and we climbed on-board with the drivers. My driver was a real personable guy named Paul, a Zamboni operator at The Garden for the past 14 years. Here he is.
I asked him how he got the job. So far as I knew, there wasn't some sort of Zamboni school you graduated from with job placement services as part of the deal. He explained that he had been part of the "bull crew" (the guys who change the playing surface from ice rink to basketball parquet, and vice-versa) for a few years when one of the Zamboni operators retired. He, and 12 or 13 other guys, applied for the position, and were taken to a skating rink in the North End of Boston to see how they'd do on the machine. Paul had never driven one before, but he was a natural. He got the job. As he confided to me while chuckling, he doesn't even skate, so he figured my being in his care, while out on the ice, was like someone who doesn't swim taking me out to sea.
Here's the view, from under the stands, as we prepared to make our entrance.
The Zamboni machine is about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide (my best guess) and the seat I rode in was perhaps 7 feet up from the ice surface. As we entered the arena, I felt somewhat like a pageant queen riding in a parade. I wondered if I should be waving at the crowd. I decided not to. Another thing I decided was to take our camera out onto the ice with me, rather than have MY WIFE shoot pictures of me riding. I figured a birds-eye view of the proceedings would be interesting.
Here are a few shots showing what I saw as I rode.
I've got to tell you, it was a total blast being out there. I felt surprisingly at home being in the center of the arena with 17,000+ staring down at me. My ego is even bigger than I previously thought.
As I rode around, other folks were taking snapshots. Then, they announced my name and showed me on the Jumbotron. I got this self-portrait.
Well, all good things must come to an end. After about 7 minutes of tooling around the ice at a blazing 8 mph, the ride was over. Paul drove our Zamboni back under the stands and I disembarked. MY WIFE was waiting for me. I hugged and kissed her, thanking her profusely for one of the most wonderful birthday presents I had ever received. She said that I didn't stop smiling a single moment while I was out there. I believe her.
Soon, with more better stuff.
(Some of you may be interested in learning more about the Zamboni ice re-surfacing machine. Here is the story of The Man Behind The Machine.)