“So, when you were 18, you came right to RIT, and you’ve just been here ever since?”
“Been here ever since. And I never looked back.”
Stu Hughes, the ice arena supervisor for RIT’s Frank Ritter Arena, is known to most of the student body as “that guy who drives the Zamboni,” a mammoth machine used for ice maintenance. But that moniker fails to speak to the lifetime of labor the man has put into RIT, starting from the first day he was old enough to take the job.
“I’m starting my 33rd year here,” says Hughes. “I spent 20 years on grounds as an equipment operator; then this Zamboni job got posted, and I thought it would be a nice little change of pace.” Why the switch? “To be honest with you, I got real tired of plowing snow and getting called in the middle of the night. I thought this would be a good switch, and it turned out to be probably the best move I’ve ever made.”
The aspect of Hughes’s career that makes him something of an RIT celebrity (at least, to hockey fans) is also one that represents, as he estimates, “only about one-tenth of [his] job.” He explains, “The fans walk in, see me drive up and down, and figure, ‘Hey, this isn’t so hard.’” The other nine-tenths include tasks that, if done right, go unnoticed by hockey fans: sound system maintenance, ordering supplies, drilling holes for the goalposts, cleaning the glass and the boxes, and the other hundred little things that are required for our beloved hockey games to go off, as they always do, without a hitch. “For a Saturday game, we might start as early as Friday morning — there’s just that much that has to get done.”
Above all else, Hughes stresses the immense respect he has for everyone he works with; nothing would pain him more than seeing credit given to him for their handiwork. Those aforementioned hundred little things are accomplished by the combined efforts of a huge, largely unseen staff. “It’s a huge team effort — without the staff that I work with, none of this could happen,” said Hughes. “I just drive the Zamboni.”
But that’s not to discount the Zamboni — that iconic, flame-wreathed orange and black behemoth that lumbers around the rink so serenely.
“Has the zamboni always been painted the way it is now?”
“Well, there’s kind of a story there — probably my third year at the arena, I finally got [Athletic Director Lou Spiotti, Jr.] to go ahead and let me order a new machine … I went ahead and said, ‘How about we do some flames or something cool?’ So I passed it along to [Men’s Hockey Head Coach Wayne Wilson], my direct boss, and he chuckled and said, ‘That’s never gonna happen.’ He came back two days later and said, ‘Lou says it’s a go.’”
The Zamboni is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s attended a Tigers hockey game, and apparently has made quite a stir in the ice-resurfacing community. The machine was even featured on the Travel Channel’s “Made in America,” marking it as something truly extraordinary by most any standard.
Unfortunately, the current model is getting a bit long in tooth. “I’m trying to get another, new machine right now. That one’s about eight years old, and we don’t have a backup machine. We’re a D1 hockey team — we need one.” The rink gets resurfaced seven days a week, so there is a nontrivial amount of stress put onto its aging frame each day. As Hughes points out, “it’s not like you can shoot down to the auto parts store — some things can be made to work, but most things you have to order custom.” Fans might be sad to see the old rig go, flames and all, but the man himself doesn’t plan on doing away with the unique look of RIT’s Zambonis. “I’d shoot for something — maybe a leaping tiger this time.”
It’s not just the Zambonis that set RIT apart; ice is the standard by which a rink crew is judged, and it’s something that everyone at the Ritter takes pride in. “We like to go to other arenas to see how they’re doing, how they run their ice operations. So far, I don’t see anyone who’s got us beat,” he chuckles.
And again, back to the rink team the conversation is steered — but it’s hard to overemphasize the degree to which Hughes praises them and downplays his own efforts. “I can’t say enough good things about them — my full-timers, my part-timers, my students,” he says, trailing off.
Yes, students. Albeit a little-known fact, the Ritter does employ a number of undergraduate RIT students. Their majors are wildly inconsistent: biomedical sciences, criminal justice and software engineering, among a grab bag of others. The key undercurrent: most of the students have played hockey at some level, amateur or otherwise. “We let them drive and practice driving for a good 40 hours before they’re ready to take out the ‘boni on their own. Though some people pick it right up, and others — don’t,” Hughes says with a smile.
This begs a question: Are these students, or other employees, being groomed as a replacement for that day when Hughes is no longer the Tiger’s Zamboni man? “Nah, I plan on staying here another 10, 15 years, unless they tell me it’s time to leave. It’s a great job — I have just the best staff, and the best bosses. Why would I leave?”
A comfort, then: While players might don and doff the Tiger colors, the Zamboni, whether painted in flames or leaping tigers, will be crewed by a familiar face for a good while yet.