Photo: Courtesy of Jim MacNeil
The Iceman Cometh
My father, Alex MacNeill, was a brilliant mechanic and in 1963 he was asked to repair a Zamboni ice machine, which was built on a Jeep’s chassis. Since he was familiar with Jeeps and the kind of work that was required, my dad accepted the job and the rest is history. His workshop soon had Zambonis coming in for repairs from across Ontario. Due to my father’s line of work, I became fascinated by Zambonis as a child, and eventually became interested in becoming a Zamboni driver.
In September, 1988, I accepted a maintenance job in St. George, Ont., where I was taught the skills of ice-making, which I have used throughout my career. In August 1991, I accepted a position with the city of Brantford, where I have remained ever since, with retirement planned prior to year’s end. (Don’t miss our ultimate guide to Canadian hockey slang.)
Throughout my career, I have been privileged to visit many Canadian cities and have been involved in numerous events. For example, in 1999 I was voted Zamboni Driver of the Year in honour of the 50th anniversary of the invention of the Zamboni ice machine in Paramount, Calif. The employees at the Zamboni plant in Brantford submitted my name and received the required number of votes for me to be considered. A radio station in Hamilton picked up the story after it had originally been published in the Globe and Mail. And then the “ice” really hit the fan, as I appeared frequently on television, radio and in more newspaper articles. The final two contestants for the title were Al Sobotka, the Zamboni driver for the Detroit Red Wings, and myself. The whole process was plenty of fun and with a much good fortune, I came out as the winner. The top prize was an appearance at the 2000 National Hockey League All-Star Game in Toronto. (Find out how much hockey meant to the small town of Hedley, British Columbia.)
As luck would have it, my journey didn’t stop there. In 2001-2002, I embarked on one of the greatest experiences of my life as the official Zamboni ice machine driver for the “Goodyear Drive for Gold.” This national fundraising tour was organized by IMG Canada, an industry leader in sports management and marketing, to promote grassroots hockey in Canada, and to support Canada’s men’s and women’s Olympic hockey teams, which would be playing in Salt Lake City in 2002. Thanks to having won the Zamboni Driver of the Year Award, I was brought to IMG’s attention by the Zamboni corporation as a likely candidate to be the tour’s official Zamboni driver. The trek across 69 Canadian cities began September 30, 2001, in St. John’s and ended January 24, 2002, in Calgary. Our specially-made Zamboni allowed for two passengers to ride alongside me. We travelled approximately 13,000 kilometres in all and among the many special guests I got to meet along the way were Walter Gretzky, Stan Jonathan and Howie Meeker. Almost one million dollars was raised by the time the tour came to a close—and many happy memories were made!
In December 2017, I published my own children’s book called The Red and White Zamboni Ice Machine. Through the use of fun rhymes and illustrations, the reader can follow along as my journey for the “Goodyear Drive for Gold” unfolds. I wrote the book so that children of all ages could have a fun, genuine and truthful Canadian story to draw inspiration from—pretty cool for an “iceman” like me.