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Behind The Wheel: The Life of a Zamboni Driver

by Chris Pinkert / St. Louis Blues

Nearly 18,000 people were on the edge of their seats at the old Arena on May 12, 1986. Thousands more were at home, some sitting on the edge of their couch cushions and others pacing back and forth, unable to sit still in front of their television sets. Some had probably even chewed away at what remained of their fingernails.

Jim Schmuke cleans blood off the ice after a fight at a Blues home game this season at Scottrade Center (Photo by Mark Buckner).
Gallery: Jim Schmuke At Work >>>
The hometown Blues had rallied back from a 4-1 deficit to tie the Calgary Flames 5-5, forcing overtime and staving off elimination from the playoffs for at least a few more minutes.

Fans noticed when Blues forward Doug Wickhenheiser scored the game-winner 7:30 into overtime, effectively sending the series to a deciding seventh game. They noticed his famous fist pump. They noticed as teammates gathered to celebrate with him on the ice, and they certainly felt the ground shake beneath their feet as the noise inside the building rocked the very foundation of the Old Barn on Oakland Avenue.

But amongst all the hoopla and fanfare, Jim Schmuke generally went unnoticed.

Schmuke was there, too, watching the Monday Night Miracle unfold (300K ). Much like the in-house crowd of 17,801 and the thousands more watching from home, he had just witnessed arguably the greatest moment in St. Louis Blues history. In fact, he even set foot on the Arena’s ice surface on more than one occasion on that historic night.

As part of the team’s building operations crew, Schmuke was responsible for moving the nets out of the zamboni’s way during intermissions while also making sure the nets were properly back in place to start the next period.

During play, he watched from the tunnel, struggling hard to keep his emotions in check as the team he grew up watching as a kid managed to stage a monumental and historic comeback.

By the Numbers

Since being hired in 1979, Schmuke has witnessed five ownership changes and 13 different Blues head coaches.

Owners: Ralston Purina, Harry Ornest, Mike Shanahan, Kiel Center Partners, the Lauries, and Dave Checketts (SCP Worldwide).

Emile Francis, Barclay Plager, Red Berenson, Jacques Demers, Jacques Martin, Brian Sutter, Bob Plager, Bob Berry, Mike Keenan, Jim Roberts, Joel Quenneville, Mike Kitchen, Andy Murray

“It was the greatest game that I ever saw,” he said.

And that speaks volumes because he has watched quite a few.

By his count, Schmuke has attended all but 20 Blues home games since being hired as a part-time building maintenance man in October 1979. Perhaps even more impressive is that since 1989, he has missed just two.

“For the most part, we have to be practically dying to not come in and work a hockey game,” he said.

In 1989, the Blues’ full-time zamboni driver left for a job in another city. Schmuke was offered the job and agreed to fill the opening, taking a job most hockey fans can only dream of. It’s no wonder the only thing that has kept him away work was a severe case of the stomach flu and his son’s eighth grade confirmation.

“There’s only so many of us in the NHL,” Schmuke said. “A lot of buildings have one full-time driver and a part-time driver that just drives the games, so it’s kind of a cool thing to think about.”

Cool enough to not want to miss a day on the job.

Schmuke grew up watching the Blues from his home in South St. Louis. One of his childhood friends owned season tickets, so Schmuke generally got to attend Saturday night home games. He remembers watching the zamboni drive around the ice during intermissions, but he never thought he’d find himself earning a living doing the job himself.

“It never really crossed my mind,” he said. “I would watch (the zamboni) between periods like everybody else does, but I never really thought about it that much.”

As a part-time building maintenance man to start, Schmuke managed to finagle management into upgrading him to full-time status in the late 1970s. Over the years, he began driving the zamboni after morning practices before eventually becoming the game-night driver in 1989. Since then, he’s become a staple at Blues games. After the intermission entertainment, Schmuke drives onto the ice to the tune of “The Zamboni Song” by the Gear Daddies.

As a game-night zamboni driver, Jim Schmuke admits he has one of the best jobs in hockey (Photo by Mark Buckner).
“It’s not tremendously hard, especially when you do it so many games in a row and so many days,” he said. “A lot of people think it can’t be that hard, that it’s just like driving a car, which it kind of is, but you’ve got a lot of other things to worry about.”

As Schmuke drives up and down the ice surface, the zamboni sprays a thin later of water onto the ice to break up the loose snow from the surface. Next, a blade sweeps up the snow before another layer of water is applied to fill the creases and smooth the surface. It’s a process that happens at least 135 times a year, not including after practices or playoff games.

When the Blues aren't playing, Schmuke stays busy setting up Scottrade Center to host other events, be it the Frozen Four, basketball or concerts. For him, there’s never a dull moment on the job.

“It’s something different everyday, that’s the best part of it. You would think it would be the same thing over and over again, but it’s not,” he said. “We could have five hockey games in a row and it’d be something different everyday. That’s what makes it fun.”

Schmuke has been a part of Blues family for more than 27 years, a span that has seen team ownership change hands five times. In addition, Schmuke has seen 13 different coaches behind the Blues bench.

Nonetheless, working with the Blues is something he enjoys, especially now that the team appears to be turning the corner and moving forward. Like many fans, he is still waiting for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

“I always think about that kind of stuff. Imagine what it would be like to see the Stanley Cup go down in front of the building,” he said.

He smiles.

“I would touch the Stanley Cup for sure," he said.  "I’ve been around long enough.”
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