Wednesday, 12 February 2014 12:51

What’s it like to drive a Zamboni for the St. Louis Blues?

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Jim Schmuke, head ice technician for the Blues, has spent decades behind the wheel of Olympia and Zamboni ice resurfacers. Jim Schmuke, head ice technician for the Blues, has spent decades behind the wheel of Olympia and Zamboni ice resurfacers. Photo by Bill Gutweiler
Most of us have spent the winter avoiding driving on snow and ice. Not Jim Schmuke. As head ice technician for the St. Louis Blues, Schmuke has spent decades behind the wheel of Zamboni and Olympia ice resurfacers, keeping the ice safe and clear for the city's favorite hockey team. We chatted with Schmuke to find out how he got into this unique line of work, what it's like to have a pint-sized fan base and what it truly means to bleed blue.


Q. How did you become the driver of a Zamboni and other ice resurfacers?
A. Back in 1988, I worked at the St. Louis Arena, and the full-time driver there was leaving to take another job in another city, so I took over there and just learned from practicing a few times, and pretty much just got thrown right into it.

What kind of training do you need before hopping in the driver's seat?
It's kind of funny; nowadays, if you're training a new driver, there's school, and you take classes to learn everything about making the ice and doing the refrigeration, but when I learned back then, I pretty much just got in the driver's seat and the person doing the training just pointed to all the levers and what everything did and just said, "Go to it." But I didn't start driving games right that day — it was probably, six months later I was driving hockey games.

Could you tell us a little about a typical day in your job?

On most game days, we don't get here 'til 2 in the afternoon; there's another driver that drives in the morning for practice. We get here at 2 o'clock to go over a checklist, check the boards, the ice, everything that needs to be done for a game. We're checking the floors, we're checking the glass, we're doing any ice maintenance that's needed; a lot of people think we just come in at 5:30 for the game, but a lot goes into it before that.

Game time's usually 7 o'clock. We may go out there and do the ice a couple of times during the day, but our final flood when we go out there would be 5:15. Then we're on hold till 6:50, when the teams are done warming up for the game, and then we do it between periods. On game days it's pretty much the same time every day. We try not to do a lot more on game days; the more water you create, the more snow, so every game day is pretty much the same way. We have a full-time crew of eight guys, so we work every event, we change over from event to event; we do a lot more than just work on the ice.


How do people react when you tell them what you do?

Everybody's excited about it! There's so many people say, "Oh, you've got a great job!" and it is a great job. I'm a big sports fan — I'm a Blues fan — and a lot of people say, "Oh, I'd love to have your job!" It's true but most people wouldn't realize that you're here till 9 o'clock on non-game days clearing from youth hockey or other events.

What's it like to drive the Zamboni at work, and then have to drive home on snow and ice? Any driving tips you'd like to share?

(laughs) No, that's another thing that a lot of people comment on — especially my friends — "maybe you should drive the Zamboni home." I do think about it. Sometimes I wish I could have studded tires on my car, driving back and forth to work.

That's another thing; it's been so cold outside, it's colder inside too. We try to keep it around 60 degrees inside for the ice, but it's harder this winter. It's been around 50 or less.


After this winter, I know a few St. Louis drivers who might be in the market for a machine like that! How much do they cost? How many does Scottrade Center have right now?
There's no doubt about that! We have a lease deal with Olympia, so I'm pretty sure a brand new one costs like, $70,000, and we have two. The leasing deal we have, we're supposed to get a new one every three years, but if Olympia comes up with a smaller rink that wants one, we get them more often than that.

What's it like to be out on the ice between game periods?
You know, when I first started driving, I was really conscious of the people watching — not really nervous, but I was conscious — but now I don't really notice. The one thing I do notice is when I go around the board, kids waving. Kids LOVE the Zamboni. It's amazing how many kids love the Zamboni and wave.

Before the games friends or employees bring their kids down on the ice to sit on the Zamboni. To me I'm used to it because I do it every day, but it's great to see how excited the kids get about sitting in the driver's seat of this big machine.


What's the hardest thing about driving the ice resurfacer?

The temperature difference in the seasons ... spring, winter, fall — the temperatures are changing outdoors, it's warmer in the building, you have to adjust. Events, too — if we have a lot of other events, concerts, basketball — it creates a little more work if the ice is covered. Like now, we don't have a hockey game for three weeks because we have the Olympic break, so at the end of this week, we actually have bull riding. We have a floor that covers the ice; we have rolls of plastic that they roll out, and they dump the dirt on top of that. We have Disney On Ice; we cover the logos so they can have Disney On Ice for five days. The amount of events we have is the biggest issue for us.

Have you bumped into any stars?
When [WWE] is here, they have a lounge downstairs where they eat, so you'll be down there with these huge guys, and we get to go down there and eat with them; they don't care. The hockey players are here all the time, so we get to know them. It's pretty cool until your friends start bugging you for autographs. I'd rather talk to a player as a regular person than go up and ask him for an autograph. Every year we'll have a lunch up in the club for the players and the employees, you grab a plate and there's a player at each table. A couple of years ago I sat at David Backes' table, and last year I sat with Ken Hitchcock, so you can sit with them and talk with them about whatever you want, but preferably not hockey; they get enough of that. I'm also a Cardinals fan so when I sat with Ken we talked about baseball, and that was pretty cool. He knows a lot about baseball.

What's the "coolest" thing about your job?
Seeing every hockey game. Like I said, I love hockey. Obviously everybody in St. Louis wants to see the Blues win the Stanley Cup, but nobody wants to see them win it more than I do. I've been through the good times and the bad times with them, and I want to see them win the cup.

When they were at the Arena and I went to games when I was younger, I had no idea I would work at games. I actually met my wife at a hockey game. I saw her game after game, and I thought, "Boy, I wouldn't mind meeting her," but it's hard when you're working and she's in the seats. Finally one game I was off, and a puck came over the glass and I caught it, and gave it to her and gave her my number. We'll be married 30 years this May.

Visit blues.nhl.com to find out when you can see Schmuke and the St. Louis Blues in action.

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Last modified on Saturday, 15 February 2014 09:16
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