Jack Hittinger, Forum News Service, Published November 03 2013
Ice men: Pair have been driving Zamboni in Bemidji since early 1990s
“That’s the first time it ever happened to me,” Myhrer said. “Everyone’s looking at you out there and there’s not much you can do.”
The unplanned stop happened between the first and second periods of a Bemidji State University men’s hockey game against Alaska-Anchorage. The Zamboni stalled between the blue lines – right on top of a painted-on advertisement for the Hampton Inn.
As it turns out, the gas line wasn’t properly connected to the propane tank, which caused the machine to stall out.
It took Myhrer, Vance Balstad and the rest of the rink crew about 20 minutes to fix what had become a big gash in the ice. Play eventually resumed and nobody was the wiser, but one never knows what will happen when you’re driving a big metal object around on frozen water.
“The best part about that night was, we were actually talking about it the night before,” Balstad said, a grin creeping on his face as he remembered that night last November. “I think I told Chad, ‘If your machine quits, I’m driving right on by.’ And as sure as God made green apples, it happened.”
Those kinds of malfunctions don’t happen often. But for Myhrer and Balstad – who have been making ice for Beaver hockey games together since the early 1990s – those miscues can be good stories to tell about a job that, they’ll both admit, can sometimes be mundane.
“Overall, it’s not that exciting,” Myhrer said with a chuckle.
He and Balstad were, appropriately enough, sitting in the green room at the Sanford Center before the BSU women were to take on the Minnesota Gophers.
“You kinda hurry up and wait,” Myhrer said. “But you have to be handy in case something breaks. It’s kind of like an on-call job.
“We pretty much hang out down by the glass. We pull chairs up and hang out because we have to be ready just in case something does happen.”
Balstad started driving the Zamboni in 1974, at BSU’s old John Glas Fieldhouse. It was a temporary job, he said, after he graduated from college.
“I was waiting for my wife to finish school a year later,” he said. “I just took it temporarily. It turned out to be the longest temporary job in the world.”
Myhrer joined Balstad later – he started making ice in 1991, helping out at former BSU head coach R.H. “Bob” Peters’ hockey camps. By the time he graduated from high school in 1993 he and Balstad were working at BSU games together at the Glas.
He took a hiatus in 2000 but returned when the Sanford Center opened in 2010.
“It’s a fun job,” Myhrer said. “It’s a nice break from my day job.”
Myhrer works as a district manager for Bimbo Bakeries/Sarah Lee.
Balstad officially retired when the Beavers moved from the Glas to the Sanford Center but couldn’t stay away from the Beaver hockey team for long – he returns to make ice on weekends for the BSU men’s and women’s hockey teams.
“Somebody once asked me, how many times have you gone around in a circle?” Balstad said. “I’d be afraid to know. I’d take a dollar for every time I’ve made ice, though. That’d be pretty sweet.”
Lots of waiting
The Sanford Center uses two Zambonis – an electric one that Balstad said belongs to BSU and a newer propane-powered machine.
On a typical game day, Balstad and Myhrer will try and get to the rink 2½ hours early and start loading the machines with hot water. Each Zamboni holds about 150 gallons.
They have to wait for the machines to charge and get ready for their trips around the ice.
“You have an hour on, an hour off, then you can warm up and play,” Balstad said of the pregame process.
Then they wait around for the intermission.
That’s the fun part – their showtime.
At the Glas, there were seats on only one side of the rink, but fans were closer to the ice.
At the Sanford Center, the seats envelop the ice.
“At first we were kind of intimidated by the seating all the way around,” Balstad said. “For all the years at the Glas it was all on one side. But now you’ve got them all yelling at you wherever you are.”
Balstad’s electric Zamboni is equipped to give rides – it has a second seat with a seat belt.
“I like giving rides,” Balstad said. “But sometimes, you get kids who want to get off. I always have to tell them to sit tight. … You can’t just pull over and stop for them to get out.”
The Zamboni Myhrer uses – the newer propane model – is strictly a one-at-a-time affair.
“It’s a little easier than having people squirming around there,” he said.
Aside from driving the machines, Balstad and Myhrer also have to occasionally step off the Zamboni and hand-scrape along the edges near the boards. Or maybe they’ll have to clean off some dirt on the ice. Occasionally, they’re needed when the glass breaks.
One time in the Glas, Balstad had an unexpected cleanup.
“One time a leak got hydraulic fluid all over the place,” he said. “It was everywhere. On the ice, on the boards, on the glass, on the wall. That was an interesting cleanup.”
Mostly, though, that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. The Sanford Center, Balstad said, is a great place to make ice.
“It’s definitely a nice facility for a community of this size,” he said. “It’s pretty darned nice. It’s kept up so well, they do a great job with it. I’m glad it’s getting more use, too.”