Lessons on the ice with Bremerton's Zamboni driver

Dave Erickson prepares to cut the ice Wednesday morning at the Bremerton Ice Arena. - Wesley Remmer/staff photo
Dave Erickson prepares to cut the ice Wednesday morning at the Bremerton Ice Arena.
— image credit: Wesley Remmer/staff photo

If it’s been built, there’s a good chance Dave Erickson has operated it.

From oil rigs to cranes to tractors to commercial fishing boats, Erickson has spent a lifetime controlling machines.

His latest toy: the Zamboni.

“Anyone can drive the darn thing,” said Erickson, 58. “To do it correctly, that’s a different story.”

Erickson’s job is to care for the ice at the Bremerton Ice Arena, home of the Puget Sound Tomahawks, keeping the frozen surface smooth, flat and at the perfect temperature for every occasion. He drives the arena’s lone Zamboni, a one-speed electric ice cutter that’s equipped with a 77-inch blade as well as a pair of tanks that hold a combined 200 gallons of water.

Although at full throttle the machine moves just 9 miles per hour — and cruising speed is 5 or 6 — driving the Zamboni is no easy job.

On days when hockey tournaments are played at the arena, Erickson may arrive in Bremerton from his home in Gig Harbor as early as 5:30 a.m. to prep the rink. He uses an automated system to control the temperature of the ice — there are sensors below the rink that are connected to a computer — and he ensures the frozen layer is precisely 1-and-three-quarters-of-an-inch thick.

And with the Tomahawks hosting two home games this weekend in the Northern Pacific Hockey League — at 7:30 p.m. Friday against the River City (Ore.) Jaguars and 7:30 p.m. Saturday against the Eugene Generals — Erickson will be a busy man.

For hockey, the ice must be between 17 and 19 degrees Fahrenheit, cooler than the 23-degree temperatures ideal for figure skating.

The ice is colder for hockey because the chillier the ice, the faster skaters move. Also, 17- to 19-degree ice is harder and more durable than ice in the 20s, holding up when large hockey players make quick carves.

Figure skaters, however, prefer ice in the low 20s. Not only is the landing more forgiving in the event of a fall, but the softer surface allows skaters to dig their blade in and gain footing prior to launching for a jump.

“There’s all kinds of ice out there,” Erickson said. “Figure skaters and hockey players, they’ll know immediately if the ice isn’t right temperature-wise.”

But Erickson must also keep the ice smooth and flat, no washboard, no divots, no holes.

That’s been the goal of Zamboni drivers ever since the 1940s, when Frank Zamboni invented the machine. The one in Bremerton weighs 11,000 pounds when fully loaded, featuring an adjustable blade, studded tires and four-wheel drive.

This is how it works:

The Zamboni blade — which must be replaced once a month during peak season — is used to scrape ice, loosening it and chipping off areas that aren’t even with the rest of the surface. The debris goes into a large bin and is dumped after each run. The ice is then “cleaned” by spraying water, which flushes dirt and other material out of grooves in the ice. Whatever is flushed out gets picked up and eventually tossed out.

A layer of 150-degree water is poured from the Zamboni onto the ice, melting the top layer and freezing for a smooth surface. Hot water is used because it freezes faster than cold water, Erickson said.

“The idea is to keep the ice the same thickness,” Erickson said.

Underneath the ice there is an insulated surface, or heating floor, which Erickson keeps around 37 degrees, another way to control the temperature of the ice. Under the insulated floor is concrete.

The rink in Bremerton is 200 feet long and 85 feet wide, the National Hockey League regulation size, and it holds between 12,000 and 14,000 gallons of water. The facility also has an “ice manufacturing” room, which is connected to 12 miles of piping.

“People think you just throw water on there and it freezes and it magically happens,” said General Manager Derek Donald. “It’s really a science.”

Erickson, who spent 23 years in Alaska before joining the Bremerton arena four years ago, prides himself on safety, too. It took a year of Zamboni driving for him to learn to “read the ice.”

He’s seen people run over hockey pucks, which clog the Zamboni’s auger, and even one person who plowed over a boom box.

But unless someone crashes into the rink’s walls, which happens, or runs into one of the 300-pound glass sheets above the walls, it’s difficult to get into trouble on the ice cutter.

Erickson has never broken any glass or had to replace a wall after a crash, only a few “fishtails” that were easily corrected.

“Knock on ice,” he said.

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