The Checkers let me drive a Zamboni, and I’m thankful for that

The Checkers let me drive a Zamboni, and I’m thankful for that

Michael Graff on a Zamboni while Tony Caddy gives last minute instructions. Photo: Courtesy of the Charlotte Checkers and BoPlex

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Charlotte celebrated two remarkable sports moments on Thursday, Nov. 11:

  1. The Panthers announced the return of their beloved quarterback Cam Newton.
  2. I drove a Zamboni.

Actually, let’s stop kidding around: We pros call it an “ice resurfacer.”

Why it matters: I didn’t wreck it.

Background: In September, I casually mentioned in our morning newsletter that I’ve always dreamed of driving one. The Charlotte Checkers — the greatest minor-league hockey franchise in the galaxy — replied and said I could.

  • One of the neat things about this town is that, even as it strives to be “Big-Pro Major-League” in everything, our minor-league franchises still feel like the fun neighbor who’s always up for a water-balloon fight or a bellyflop contest.

So naturally, I said yes.

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On the same day as Newton’s big return, and on the same day Axios threw a party at Free Range Brewing to celebrate the release of my new book, (Plug: “The Vote Collectors“) I went on over to Bojangles Coliseum for a lunchtime ride of a lifetime.

  • Of note: I invited Axios co-founder Mike Allen, who was in town to moderate that night’s book discussion. But Mike had a meeting: He’s more “Big-Pro Major-League” in Axios land, and I’m more of a dizzy-bat race participant who stumbles into a Zamboni ride.

I quickly learned that the people who run the “ice resurfacers” are sort of like lawn care professionals with degrees in mad ice science. They even call what they do giving the ice “a cut.”

  • My tour guide was a friendly man named Tony Caddy (what better name), who wore shorts on the rink and knows everything there is to know about Zamboni life.

How it works: To create a smooth surface after hockey skating and slashing, Caddy and his team take two machines around during intermission. Each has a sharp blade that shaves the top layer of ice.

  • The blade will “cut off a limb” if you happen to get in front of it, Caddy told me, and this was information I was glad to have.
  • In the same sweep, the machine drops hot water on the ice, because hot water freezes faster than cold water.
  • And then a “towel” dragging along the surface smooths it out.

I didn’t make any “cuts,” just drove to get a feel for the thing. Caddy took me around for a few laps before hopping off and saying, “All yours,” and my dream came true.

  • The vehicle drove a little like a boat in that the reactions aren’t immediate and the back-end always feels like it’s sliding out from under you. With each lap, I picked up speed and tried to get a little closer to the corners.

But the best part had nothing to do with mechanics or gears.

No, what I’ll remember most is being alone in the middle of that old arena that’s hosted concerts and religious revivals and wrestling matches — sometimes in the span of a week — and being able to look up under the scoreboard and out at all the banners, enjoying the peace, if just for a few turns of the wheel.

  • In an odd way, it was the same feeling I had when skydiving — more relaxing than exhilarating, being alone in a quiet space and knowing I couldn’t do anything else in that moment except focus on the thing at hand.
Zamboni checkers

Taken while driving. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

The bottom line: I am a 41-year-old dad who needs this, OK. I’m now living proof that if you live long enough, work hard enough, eat marginally healthy every now and then, drink water and send emails, you can achieve your life goals.

What’s next: The Checkers are back in town tonight after a two-week road trip. They play at Bojangles Coliseum tonight, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

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