The iceman driveth

Michael Doak, Zamboni driver

photo by serene lusano

The Downtown Sacramento Ice Rink is open daily through January 20, 2014, Monday through Thursday, 2 to 8 p.m.; Friday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; 701 K Street; (916) 442-8575;

Michael Doak, 26, is general manager for the Sacramento Downtown Partnership. He's also, impressively, the Zamboni operator for its seasonal ice rink. When Doak isn't cutting ice and high-fiving kids, he also helps run the partnership's farmers markets and summertime Friday Night Concerts in the Park series. A Sacramento State University graduate with a degree in business, Doak says he hopes to someday run a computer-electronics business, but for now, he's happy to root for the Sacramento Kings and San Francisco 49ers in his downtime after a hard day on the ice. Doak sat down with SN&R to talk driving tips, injuries and romance.

How did you become a Zamboni driver?

I started off as security guard, doing overnight-type stuff. I wanted to work with the public—I didn't just want to be by myself. So, I talked to management, trying to get my foot in the door. I wanted to do something more, I wanted to expand. When you do management, you get to drive the Zamboni, do the scheduling, do payroll. You get to do everything. I never want to step down, because after three years, even though it's seasonal, I don't want to walk away.

Tell me what the ideal Zamboni state of mind is.

Just have fun with it. When you have a bunch of little kids around, they think [the Zamboni] is the best thing in the world. That's pretty great. When you ride past the sides [of the rink] and slap their hands, they're so excited because that's someone special. It's fun to make the kids happy, and they think it's really cool to see the ice shine right after. When I first started, I felt like a rock star, but now, I'm used to it.

How does the Zamboni actually work?

It cuts off a thin layer of the ice, and if there's any holes in the ice, the water fills them. The ice is fairly cold already, so it will freeze in a matter of a minute, depending on how big [the area] is. Then, it shoots all the snow into a dump tank.

Does one need a special license to drive the Zamboni?

No. It's not hard to drive, but it's a much bigger vehicle. It's pretty much like driving a U-Haul on the ice. You have to take it slow, keep a constant speed to make it as smooth as possible.

Do you have any important driving tips?

It's a constant flow. You want to repeat the same rhythm over and over, constant motion, back and forth. Our Zamboni is big—it's full size—but our rink is pretty small. So, on our ice, we have to learn the angles to steer it and get right up to the edges of the ice. We don't want to hit the wall. It happens every year, someone bumps the wall. We'll make fun of them, as a friendly thing, because we went through the same thing. If I make fun of someone, it's because I made the same exact mistake the year before. It's bound to happen.

Most surprising injury you’ve seen at the rink?

Injurywise, someone breaking their leg is bad. It happens, but then, your whole mindset changes. One guy fell and chipped his teeth. One time, a lady fell back and hit her head, and she wasn't moving for a minute. Her husband came over and started making fun of her. It was an older couple in their 60s. She was fine, but it was hard to comfort her when her husband was joking around at the time. The paramedics have only come twice this year, which is pretty good. If people sprain their ankle, we have wraps for that.

What keeps the ice frozen?

We have a chiller on the side, which is a machine that pumps glycol through a grid of pipes under the ice. It keeps temperatures between 10 and 12 degrees in the morning time, and up to 14 to 16 degrees in the evening. There's 3 or 4 inches of ice on top of the pipes.

What’s the energy bill look like for an ice rink?

It's pretty high. One year, we had more ice, which made the chiller work twice as hard to keep it frozen. I'm not sure how much the bill was exactly.

Anyone popped the question at the rink?

We've had a couple of marriage proposals. There's always like two or three a season. Some guys have told us beforehand they wanted to propose to their girlfriends. They want to do it at a certain time in the center ice, and we put on a song for them. We have a Sirius [Satellite Radio] “love” station or [use] our smartphones. When that time comes, we turn the music down and make an announcement. He gets down on one knee, she starts flipping out, and everyone starts cheering for them. We've had 100 percent say yes so far, so we're lucky on that part.

How does ice-rink romance look from a Zamboni’s-eye view?

There's been times where you could tell two people met online. You see them, and they can be pretty awkward. The ice rink is still a good date spot; there's places to eat and hang out in the area. We haven't seen any breakups, but once [there were] teenage boys fighting over a girl. We had to call the cops for that. You want to laugh, but you have to make it as calm as possible for the customers.