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BEYOND THE GAME: Ralph Engelstad Arena ice maintenance crew

It's like driving a lawn mower, Josh Saunders said. "But, you're just doing it on ice, so it's more slippery." Saunders is the ice maintenance supervisor at Ralph Engelstad Arena, which is a fancy way of saying he's the guy that handles driving t...

Ice Maintenance Supervisor Josh Saunders shaves the top layer of ice with a Zamboni
Ice Maintenance Supervisor Josh Saunders shaves the top layer of ice with a Zamboni on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. (Robb Jeffries / Grand Forks Herald)

It's like driving a lawn mower, Josh Saunders said.

"But, you're just doing it on ice, so it's more slippery."

Saunders is the ice maintenance supervisor at Ralph Engelstad Arena, which is a fancy way of saying he's the guy that handles driving the Zamboni.

Calling him just a Zamboni driver doesn't quite do it justice, though, as he puts in a lot of hours doing a lot of things to prepare the playing surface for UND's men's and women's hockey teams.

"I'm normally here about four hours before the actual game time, shaving the ice down, trying to get it as level as we possibly can get it," Saunders said.

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Using a sensor that looks like it could be a laser gun from a science fiction movie, Saunders will measure the depth of the ice, which he puts into a computer program and prints out. He'll bring that printout with him as he uses a large blade on the bottom of the Zamboni to shave the ice to an even level.

Over the next three-plus hours, Saunders will continue to measure the surface and drive laps around the ice on the Zamboni, shaving the ice down and flooding it with water to reach the desired 1- to-1 ¼-inch depth.

"I just try to do the best I can do to try to make the hockey team happy," he said.

During the games, Saunders is joined on the ice by another Zamboni driver, Butch Schuler.

As The Ralph's maintenance supervisor, Schuler is technically Saunders' boss, but he tries to be as hands-off as possible.

"Josh will go out there and pretty much get the ice prepared on his own," Schuler said. "I'll go help flood, but it's best to not get too many cooks in the kitchen."

Humble beginning

Saunders began his career as a part-time maintenance worker at the old Ralph Engelstad Arena during his first year at UND. He happened to play a game of softball with Mark Poolman, UND men's hockey athletic trainer, and Saunders asked him if he knew of any work-study or part-time jobs open.

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"He said 'no' right away, but called me about a week later and told me about the part-time job at the old Ralph," Saunders said.

Saunders moved with the crew to the new arena when it opened in 2001, and accepted a full-time position a few years later.

He had no previous Zamboni driving experience, but learning did not prove to be too difficult.

"The way I learned how to drive the Zamboni is just get on it and drive it," Saunders said. "I had a guy drive around with me. It was just basically get on and drive. I think the best way to learn is screwing something up and having to fix it."

Schuler said the work Saunders has put in shows in the quality of the playing surface on game nights.

"He does a really good job," Schuler said. "I don't think you'll find a better guy than Josh at prepping the ice anywhere."

Call Jeffries at (701) 780-1105, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1105 or send email to rjeffries@gfherald.com .

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Maintenance Supervisor Butch Schuler (background) adds a layer of water to the ice with a Zamboni
Maintenance Supervisor Butch Schuler (background) adds a layer of water to the ice with a Zamboni on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. (Robb Jeffries / Grand Forks Herald)

Robb Jeffries (he/him) is the Night Editor for InForum.com and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Robb can be reached at rjeffries@forumcomm.com.
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