Up close and personal – Big Z and me


The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

In the end, I didn’t get to drive Big Z.

It’s probably for the best. I am pretty sure I know what would have happened if I had gotten behind the controls of the Homewood-Flossmoor Ice Arena’s Zamboni last Friday.

Tom Houlihan behind the 
wheel of the (stationary) 
H-F Park District Zamboni.

(Photo provided by Bob
Birgel/H-F Park District)

First, the throttle would have gotten stuck at its top speed — 9 mph. Then I’d have crashed the blue-and-white behemoth, first through the transparent ice rink barriers and then the north wall of the arena facility.

It would all go downhill from there. As I desperately and unknowingly grabbed for the numerous control handles, the Zamboni would be on its way, smashing through backyards, along sidewalks and snowy streets. There would be no way of stopping it — the machine apparently has no actual brake — and we’d cut away snow and put down a layer of ice all the way to 183rd Street.

Before long, the path of destruction would be nationally visible and viral on cable news shows, which would scream “Runaway Zamboni horror!”

But I am getting ahead of myself.

You may recall that I used this space a couple of weeks ago to proclaim my deep desire to become the Ice Arena’s newest Zamboni driver. I’d driven past the electric sign at the rink advertising for a new driver; I took that to be Divine Providence. In my post, I mused about the upcoming close relationship with “Big Z” and how driving such a wonderful machine would give me modest celebrity status.

I admit that I was being something of a smart aleck. More than something.

Kyle Hughes demonstrates
the operation of the Zamboni.

(Photo by Tom Houlihan/The

So I was not sure what to expect when I heard last week from Shon Washington, the Ice Arena manager. A cease-and -desist order? A pending class action lawsuit on behalf of Zamboni drivers? As it turns out, Shon and several of his colleagues liked my musings and invited me to the rink to learn more about the machine. “The position is still open!” he added.

At the ice rink, I shook hands with Shon and Bob Birgel, the park district's public relations coordinator who’d be taking pictures of me and Big Z. They introduced me to Andrew Presnak, my tour guide and the rink’s head of maintenance. Andrew has worked at the rink for 10 years and is the go-to guy on all ice-making questions.

My Zambonification started with a look at the machine. It’s big – seven feet high, 15 feet long – with the controls at the back. There is one seat and, as I mentioned, a number of controls that manage both the machine’s movement and its ice-making abilities. It runs on propane; Andrew said the fuel is very clean and emissions are constantly monitored.  The ice rink took possession of its current machine, Zamboni Model 546, last January. It cost about $90,000.

Tom talks about Big Z with 
Andrew  Presnak.
provided by Bob Birgel/H-F
Park District)

Big Z has a very busy day, from 5 a.m. to past midnight. It resurfaces the ice once every hour during that time, a process that takes about 10 minutes. Andrew explained that the Zamboni simultaneously removes snow, scrapes the surface and puts down water for new ice. Its six-foot scraping blade is removed for sharpening every week.

Andrew said it takes about six weeks to train new Zamboni drivers. He said he’s heard of Zamboni accidents – at other facilities, not the H-F rink -- and it takes practice to master the machine.

Sometime during my visit, I realized I would not be allowed to drive Big Z. I wistfully posed for pictures on the machine, then watched driver Kyle Hughes resurface the rink while a youth hockey team waited for its turn on the ice.

He clearly knows what he is doing. Unlike me.

Related commentary:
On the road, or the rink, with Big Z (The Chronicle, Jan. 28, 2015)

Contact Tom Houlihan at [email protected]

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