Rangers Playoff Prep: Hockey’s Ice Men Cometh

Although the Rangers suffered a loss to the Penguins in the first of the best-of-seven opening round of the Stanley Cup play-offs this week, they will have a home-team advantage coming up on Tuesday. They will need their 17,000 square feet of ice to be silky smooth and perfectly chilled.

The task will rest in the able hands of Paul Curtis and Jack Durkin of the Madison Square Garden ice crew. They, along with Steve Perry, are the only drivers of the Zamboni, the machine that resurfaces the ice, for the Rangers.

“It’s a great job,” said Curtis, a British transplant. “I’m driving the Zamboni for the Rangers. That’s mad.”

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Curtis has been a utility worker at Madison Square Garden for 24 years and has been on the ice crew for the last 16. He said that he learned how to drive the Zamboni from Durkin, now the ice crew foreman, who has had 29 years at the Garden, 27 on the ice.

“It’s nerve-racking to start in front of the crowd,” said Durkin. “We’ve all practiced, practiced, practiced during the daytime when no one’s here but it’s a whole different animal when you have 18,000 people in the house.”

After a combined 43 years taking care of one of the most famous slabs of frozen water in the world, the two say they are now completely comfortable driving the 6,500-pound Zamboni and have even gotten used to the 17 hour days when the Rangers have a home game.

Upon entering Madison Square Garden at 7 in the morning, the crew usually finds the ice covered with debris left behind by the wood planks that covered the floor from the previous night’s concert or basketball game. After they remove any litter, they resurface the ice for both teams to practice. They make more passes on the Zamboni once practice ends, right before the game, during the two intermissions and after the winning team skates off the ice, usually working until midnight.

Curtis said he drives a Zamboni so often that it creeps into other parts of his life. “When I cut the grass or when I do anything, I will do it in the pattern of the Zamboni,” he said.

In addition to driving the coolest vehicle in Manhattan, the crew is also responsible for cleaning up the beer, soda and hats thrown down onto the ice by fans, either in celebration or defeat. Curtis and Durkin said that because of fights or injuries, blood sometimes splatters onto the ice, as well, and requires their attention.

Regardless of the long hours and frequently less than sanitary ice conditions, the two said that there is no other job they would rather do and that taking care of the ice is not as simple as it may seem.

“It’s not just throwing water down,” said Curtis with a wink. “There’s a lot of tricks to it.”

Whatever is required to get the ice ready for play, they said they just want to still be doing it throughout the post-season.

“The best part is the potential for another Stanley Cup,” said Durkin. “We’re going to be here late into June. I’m positive.”

“That would be lovely,” added Curtis.