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Fifteen years ago, France Purcell walked into the San Diego Ice Arena in Mira Mesa offering to work in exchange for free hockey ice time. He’s been taking care of the ice there ever since, along with stints in the skate shop and the snack bar and as a extra pair of hands.
Purcell, 42 years old, grew up in Mira Mesa and Seville, Spain, when his dad was posted there as a naval officer. His family went to Maine in the winters, where he learned to skate and play hockey and ride snowmobiles. Despite his affinity for summer sports in California like rollerblading and cycling and surfing, Purcell never dropped his love of winter.
I wanted to chat with Purcell this week because I am preoccupied with the Olympics, happening right now just across the water from my hometown in Canada. For hockey fans or ice-sports fans, there’s perhaps no greater dream job than to be a Zamboni driver.
The Zamboni, for the uninitiated, looks like a tractor driven on the ice. It’s the most famous brand of ice-cleaning and resurfacing machines used in ice rinks. You drive the machine over the ice between periods in hockey games or rounds of other ice sports so athletes can enjoy clean, smooth ice. A big blade at the back shaves the surface of the ice, a broom sweeps the shavings, and nozzles spray water on the ice to wash and resurface the ice.
One evening this week, Purcell hopped down from his 6:30 p.m. resurfacing and told us how to make ice, how to paint ice, how to clean and resurface ice. And then he pulled out his vocational trump card: This is the job everybody wants.
So you’ve been driving for about 15 years. What do you think you’ve learned in that time? How has your life changed in 15 years?
I’ve never really thought of that. I just take everything one day at a time — you know, day by day and all of that. Try not to make myself worry too much.
How do you mean? What would you worry about?
Well, you know, nowadays, you have to worry about keeping your job and all of that kind of stuff. Even though I’ve been doing this for 15 years, I still think I could lose my job at any time. But that just makes me work harder, and just makes me appreciate things more.
Appreciate things like what?
Just life in general. I’m glad I got a job that I can come to, and a job that everybody else wants. Everybody else wants to drive a Zamboni. Nobody wants to be a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that.
In our family we’ve got doctors, lawyers. My mom’s a nurse, my dad’s an old naval officer for submarines, and everyone’s like, “You’re son drives a Zamboni? That’s a cool job!” They all want to drive the Zamboni.
Is this the job you always wanted?I wanted to be a cyclist, but just bottom line, I just wasn’t good enough.
So this is maybe a good Plan B?
I come from a blue-collar background, you know, where if you lose a job, you go out and find a job flipping burgers or pounding nails or washing dishes. You just don’t sit around and collect unemployment. You get back out there and get your hands dirty until you find the job you were originally good for anyways.
Is that what happened for you? What was it like to discover that cycling wasn’t going to be what you did long-term?
I haven’t thought about that in ages, probably since the last Tour de France. It took a long time for me to get over that. I was trying out for competitions and then I got injured and then I tried to do it again, and, like I said, I just wasn’t good enough.
So I was like, “OK.” Went to school, at City College. Took auto mechanics and just started working as a mechanic, working over at the Jaguar dealer.
Just came over here and asked for a job, and they noticed I had a mechanic’s background and stuff, and the blue Zamboni we had before, we replaced it with the red one was always breaking down. So the owner’s son gave me a job here.
What’s the highest pressure situation you’ve ever been in driving the Zamboni?
Probably when the fuel tank blew up. It was about three years ago. I heard a hiss coming from one of the connections and then it just gave way.
Like into flames?
No. It basically broke and just shot all of the fuel out of it. The tank’s under about 3,000 pounds of pressure. So it made that big “whoosh” sound.
I guess I’m thinking about those Zamboni drivers that are driving in the middle of just these intense, passionate games. Whether it’s international, like the Olympics, or some sort of championship — what’s going through their heads when they’re going out between periods to clean the ice?
Usually, they’re pretty focused.
At STAR, Serving The American Rinks — kind of like a vocational school for Zamboni drivers — they teach you how to drive the Zamboni, they teach you all the theories, they teach you how to paint the lines in the ice, and then of course, the basic refrigeration stuff.
One of the things they tell you in the Zamboni course is that if you get a job where you’re working at a multi-use facility, or if you’re going to be working for a pro team, and you’re going to be in there where there’s 15,000 screaming fans, the thing to do is to get in your zone, and don’t get distracted. They emphasize that, big time.
Do you think you’ve got that down?
Yeah. I’ve got people banging on the doors, telling me to honk the horn. I hear ’em, but I’m just not responding.
What do you think about when you’re driving?
Thinking about my speed, how much water I’m applying, how much I’m taking on, and if it’s gonna freeze in time before I get off the ice.
You said everybody wants to be a Zamboni driver.
Everybody thinks it’s the best job in the world.
Yes. It is.
Before I worked here I worked as a mechanic. I was coming home with my hands banged up. I was coming home dirty all the time. When you’re fixing people’s cars, to a certain extent, you’re telling them you have to charge them $100 more and they get all bent out of shape.
The best part of this job is you’re only actually working 10 minutes at a time, driving around a fun piece of equipment, you have people yelling and screaming at you, cheering you on. Everybody wants to watch the Zamboni drive around.
Do you have any sort of food or meal that makes you have a better day at work?
Yeah, coutin and mush. (Sounds like “moosh.”)
What is that?
Come on, you’re Canadian. You know what coutin and mush is. It’s French fries and gravy.
Oh, like poutine almost.
And, mush? What’s that?
It’s a thing my girlfriend came up with. You take chicken, cube it up. You take cream of mushroom soup, rice, and chicken broth and just combine it all up until it’s reduced, over heat. Mash it on your place.
And where does the coutin come in?
That’s for your French fries. On the side.
Do you eat that every day?
No, not every day. It’s a special occasion. Make it during the Olympics, during hockey season. It’s a great winter food, too. It’s very hearty.
Now, I have to ask, even though I live here too and love hockey. We are in San Diego. And your favorite food is a winter food, and you drive a Zamboni at an ice arena. This is pretty out of the mainstream for San Diego.
I just prefer it that way. There’s nothing to “deal with.” The one cool thing about living here in San Diego is that you can be like this, too. You can be a complete winter freak living in a summer state.
It’s probably because of the California attitude. If it’s not hurting anyone and if it’s making somebody feel good, it’s all right.
— Interview conducted and edited by KELLY BENNETT