In the north lot at the Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA) in
Raleigh, where the Carolina Hurricanes park their cars and the
telecasters park their satellite trucks, sits a 33-foot motor
home wedged alongside a fence. It's from whence the iceman
Every morning during the NHL season 43-year-old Donnie
MacMillan, the ESA building superintendent, leaves his RV and
makes the short walk across the parking lot to the arena. Among
other things, it's MacMillan's job to oversee the building's
200-by-85-foot ice surface, which includes resurfacing it before
games and between periods with a Zamboni. (Well, it's not
actually a Zamboni. The ESA's resurfacing machines were
manufactured by a company named Olympia, but MacMillan and
everybody else who works in the arena calls them Zambonis.)
MacMillan usually wears what he calls crazy pants, baggy cousins
of sweatpants with loud designs, of which he owns 30 pairs. The
combined effect of his fun-loving demeanor and his relaxed
wardrobe makes him seem laid-back, but when it comes to
solid-state H2O, MacMillan is all business. As a defenseman at
West Haven (Conn.) High he'd sometimes play on a Friday night at
the New Haven Coliseum and be back the next day to help building
supervisor Pete Vitalli tend to the ice.
Vitalli was MacMillan's mentor, the man responsible for putting
him behind the wheel of a Zamboni for the first time, at 14. "I
was with Pete all the time," says MacMillan. "One day he jumped
off and said, 'Here, go.' That had always been my dream.
Everyone wants to be the Zamboni driver."
MacMillan remained a rink rat, driving the Zamboni for the New
Haven Knighthawks of the American Hockey League before getting a
similar job with the Hartford Whalers, in 1993. When the Whalers
moved to North Carolina four years later, MacMillan went along
for the ride. "It happened so quickly," says MacMillan of his
decision to move. "The team's brass said that if I wanted to
stay at the arena, I could, and I've loved RVs all my life, so I
got a nice little RV."
MacMillan wants it known that there's more to making good ice
than getting water really cold, and when he begins reciting the
variables, it's easy to believe him. The water he uses, for
instance, must be a perfectly proportioned blend of deionized
and municipal. He also must factor in the size of the crowd
expected for the next game (the more people, the warmer the
building gets) as well as the outside temperature. He always
gets an early start, checking the weather well in advance and
then making changes in the arena temperature. "Three o'clock in
the morning on a game day is the most important time," he says.
"If you're ready then, it's easy."
MacMillan has achieved about as much celebrity as a Zamboni
driver can. He has appeared in two ESPN commercials promoting the
NHL playoffs, and other rinkmasters around the league frequently
ask him for advice. When the website www.howstuffworks.com wanted
to know how to operate an ice rink, the editors asked MacMillan
to serve as their expert.
Given his resume, MacMillan could probably write his own ticket
with Sno-Cone, but he's in no hurry to leave his position with
the Hurricanes, if for no other reason than he can't wear crazy
pants at a desk job. "As far as I'm concerned, this is what I
want to do," he says. "I'm not going to sit upstairs and do
suit-and-tie work. I love my job."
Before a Hurricanes game earlier this season, as he resurfaced
the ice with a passenger belted into the jump seat, MacMillan
paid little attention to his visitor or to the fans in the stands
who constantly waved at him. Instead he kept an eye on the driver
of ESA's second resurfacing machine (the NHL requires teams to
employ two machines between periods), who he thought wasn't
shaving enough ice off the surface. "I'm usually watching the
other guy more than what I'm doing," MacMillan says.
He gave the other driver a few hand signals, telling him to drop
his blade a bit, and then finally went over the area in question
himself. Satisfied that the ice was right, MacMillan drove off
into the bowels of the arena, saying, "That's why I like to be
the first one on and the last one off."