Chuck Van Dyke was just doing his job when a child reminded him he has a truly cool line of work.
Van Dyke, 59, operates ice resurfacers at the Penn State Ice Pavilion for a living. One day, the usual crowd gathered to watch him drive the Zamboni resurfacing machine and smooth the rutted ice.
“I have a lot of little kids who line up at the windows and wave at public sessions,” he said. One boy went further with his admiration.
“He walked up to me and gave me a high five,” Van Dyke said.
In his third year steering the Zamboni around the rink, the Drifting resident is used to the effect the blue and white machine has on hockey fans. He doesn’t mind the attention.
“It’s a fun job,” he said. “I wish I had known about this years ago. I would have loved it.”
Instead, he drove trucks for 20 years until he grew tired of the stress of hauling construction equipment and even explosives across the state and down to Virginia. A friend told him about an opening at the rink and encouraged him to apply.
“I knew absolutely nothing,” Van Dyke said. “When I started here, that was the first Zamboni I ever saw.”
It didn’t take long for him as a veteran trucker to pick up the Zamboni’s mechanics.
As with other brands of ice resurfacers, the Zamboni cuts ice with a blade, then uses augers to scoop the snow into a holding tank.
Once water jets flush out loose ice and debris, and the excess liquid is vacuumed up, the Zamboni applies a sheet of hot water that bonds to the old ice and forms a new layer.
Rink Manager Chris Whittemore said Van Dyke quickly learned the nuances of driving the Zamboni, and now does “a great job” of cutting and resurfacing the ice. Expertise counts when the clock’s ticking between game periods and the pressure’s on.
“You have to know what you’re dealing with, especially when you have all these eyeballs on you,” Whittemore said. “You have a 5-ton machine. Everyone is so fascinated with the Zamboni, it can be a little unnerving.”
Van Dyke, who works the evening shift and thus games, generally has 10 minutes to finish during intermissions.
Solo, he can complete a rink in seven to eight minutes. In tandem with another machine, as is usually the case for games, the job can be over in about five.
But, Whittemore said, speed isn’t desirable. As drivers first make a lap around the boards and then systematically cover the rest of the ice, the key is maintaining a consistent pace, he said. Speeding up and slowing down creates poor-quality ice.
“If you use your brake in turns, you’re in trouble,” Whittemore said.
Van Dyke long ago discovered that, though he said the Zamboni overall isn’t hard to master.
“If you go too fast and try to make the corners, if the ice is wet, (the Zamboni) slides,” he said.
By now, he has the touch, neither dawdling and releasing too much water for the ice to set in time, nor hurrying and doing an insufficient job. He’s comfortable enough in the driver’s seat to don his Santa Claus suit last Christmas, drawing cheers from the stands.
Like his boss, he enjoys seeing children’s faces light up when the machine with the funny name rolls by.
“Before, I never cared if I went to work,” Van Dyke said. “Now I don’t stay away from here. I like coming to work.”
By Chris Rosenblum