For Your Ice Only

Zamboni.
You either know what it is or you don't.
If you do, then skip the next sentence. The Zamboni is the big machine that drives around an ice rink scraping up a thin layer of used ice and laying down a sheen of water that will soon turn into fresh ice.

The Mesa Office of Redevelopment.
You either know what it is or you don't. If you do, then skip the next sentence. The Mesa Office of Redevelopment is a body of city government concerned with revitalizing the original town center. Part of that plan is to bring the Phoenix Roadrunners to currently rinkless Mesa, and what's a hockey team without someplace to skate?

Right. Mesa needs to build a rink. But why stop with just one? A recent market study by the office indicated that, "in the East Valley, there is a need for, like, seven ice skating rinks," redevelopment specialist Patrick Murphy told me.

All of this is exciting news. An actual hockey team in downtown Mesa, plus all that cool, hardened water for East Valleyites to glide around on. But, as we have already learned, an ice rink is simply not going to happen without a Zamboni to keep things shaved and smooth and lovely.

I must admit, my knowledge of the Zamboni experience is not merely voyeuristic. In addition to many other fascinating jobs in my past--waiter, mail-room grunt, backstage doorman--16 years ago I drove a Zam at the Pasadena Ice Skating Center. I didn't know how to drive a car (didn't get a license until I was 29, but that's another story), but three or four times a night I would get behind the wheel of this monster and make new ice.

What a sensation, what a powerful feeling; I'd push the Zam up to its top speed of 9 mph, zip along, dangerously close to the edge of the rink, the artificially cooled air stinging my acne-ridden cheeks, skillfully laying down fresh lines of ice while X or the Stones blared over the PA. How fun it was to take my time out there, simply to infuriate the hordes of little girls in their pink leotard skating costumes waiting to get back in the rink to practice their twirls and routines. They'd scowl from the bleachers and shoot me black stares, these daughters of the wealthy, future heartbreakers all.

They hated me, but they needed me. I was essential, I was the Ice Maker, the Lord of the Zamboni. Best job I ever had.

As you can plainly see, it takes a special breed of man to tame the Zamboni, to put the beast through its paces. And, for the Roadrunners, that man is Tom Youngs.

He is 29, a son of Guelph, Ontario, born with hockey in his blood. And blood in his hockey. There is a conspicuous gap in Youngs' smile as a result of a face-down meeting with some ice. When teeth meet ice, ice always wins.

"I got blindsided and knocked out a tooth and blew out my shoulder," he says with all the concern of someone recalling a paper cut. "I got knocked out on impact." Big deal. Youngs is a hockey man. "I don't like basketball, I think it's a baby sport," he scoffs. "Every time they get touched, they're crying foul."

When Youngs is on the ice these days, it is atop the big, black, 1990 Zamboni at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, where he has been cutting ice about 35 times a week, six days a week, for three years. Before that he was at the Oceanside rink in Tempe for four years. He notices the difference.

"I guess I was real surprised when I came here where a pro team was playing, and how much the kids and the fans get into the Zamboni," Youngs says. "I've always been around hockey players, which is like, 'Get the machine off the ice so we can go out there and skate.'

"I've had kids that came up and marveled at it, and girls standing there and they ask me if I drove it, and they thought that was the greatest thing. That was the first time I sat back and looked at it and thought, 'You know, it kind of is an amazing machine.'"

As Siegfried and Roy are close to their animals, Youngs is close with his Zamboni. "I know almost every scratch on it. If there's a new one, I'm freaking out. It's my baby. I've had little kids come up and ask for my autograph, and I say, 'Do you even know who I am?' They say, 'You're the guy who drives the machine!' So I sign. I just sign 'em 'Tomboni.'"

Oh, yeah. Tomboni. That's what it says on the front grille where it should say 'Zamboni.'

"My first year here, you know, you get that cocky thing, and I was looking at it thinking, 'You know, if I just changed two letters on this, it's my name plus 'boni.' I took some tape and covered up the Z and the A. Then I had it professionally done. And the first one actually got stolen." Crazy kids.

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