Aunts and uncles 1,846 miles away tune in on winter weekends to watch the SeeJH.com livestream of Jackson Hole Moose Hockey.
But those fans are not there for the hockey. They’re there for the Zamboni.
Before the game, while the band of the week plays, Zach Slaker backs the ice resurfacing machine out of its station and onto the rink, clad in a moose antler hat he found in his grandfather’s attic from an Alaskan cruise. Slaker has lived in Jackson for five years and has captained the Zamboni as the assistant manager of the Snow King Sports and Events Center for three years.
“I always dreamed about driving a Zamboni as a little kid,” Slaker said. “It’s every hockey player’s dream.”
Slaker grew up playing hockey in Marietta, Georgia. The sport runs in his blood: His father was the team doctor for the NHL’s Atlanta Knights, and his brother plays for the University of Michigan’s hockey team. At a late January game Slaker’s visiting sister Facetimed in nieces and nephews to watch Uncle Zach drive the Zamboni by.
“I love hockey,” he said. “I love to watch competitive games. It’s such a fast-paced sport.”
After graduating from school in Georgia, Slaker moved to Chicago and worked for an insurance company. It didn’t take long for him to decide the “corporate world” wasn’t for him, so he packed up a van and traveled the U.S. for eight months, seeing 46 of 50 states.
“Being alone and exploring, meeting new people, seeing all the different culture in the U.S.,” Slaker said. “You go to the East Coast, to the West Coast, it’s completely different, from the scenery to the way people think.”
He ended that trip in Jackson Hole, picking up jobs at Snake River Brewing and AT&T, finally landing at the Snow King rink.
“I had one mentor that told me, if I wasn’t going to get a ‘real job,’ at least go to Jackson, Wyoming,” he said.
Slaker calls piloting the Zamboni an adrenaline rush. With hundreds of hockey spectators attending Moose games, he said, it can be nerve-wracking being alone on the ice.
“It’s almost like a show in itself,” Slaker said. “The way I always put it, it’s like having 1,200 people watch you cut your grass.”
And just like the crowd is vocal with the hockey players, he’ll get an earful from them, too.
“The crowd is definitely a bunch of hecklers,” he said.
Slaker is careful to remind you that the Zamboni is actually called an “ice resurfacer,” and that “Zamboni” is a trademark name, named after inventor Frank Zamboni, who held the patent on the machine for 30 years.
The machine lays down water while a large blade underneath shaves off a layer of snow, which is sucked into the vehicle’s main chamber. Slaker’s work between periods helps with puck traction and fills holes made by skates.
“This is some pretty competitive hockey, and these boys have skated hard for a while,” he said. “It does tear the ice up really quickly.”
He starts with a lap around the perimeter, using a “board brush” to clean up against the rink’s edges, then circles around in careful laps to cover the entire surface. The ice work is so important for the players that Slaker feels like part of the team.
“They can’t play without me,” he said. “They’re picky about their ice as well. They’re going to criticize me if I do something wrong, tell me it’s a little too wet — that does affect the game. These guys have been playing for so long, they know good ice.”
Slaker’s list of responsibilities extends far beyond just resurfacing the ice and includes everything from installing the goalposts, setting up the beer tents and cleaning the bathrooms. And that’s just for the Moose games. Every day, he said, people are on the ice from 6 a.m. to midnight between hockey, figure skating, youth programs and more.
In August he and a team work to make the ice, which involves several days of spraying a fire hose and using cooling systems to freeze the water, laying down paint and mesh lines.
“We’re out there with rulers,” making sure everything is regulation, he said.
Seven or eight months later the ice is melted — a messy endeavor, he said — to make way for summer events that Slaker helps manage, like quinceañeras and industry expos and conferences.
For Slaker the summer season also means running the JacksonHoleLive concert series.
Between all those responsibilities Slaker still finds time to encourage the next generation of hockey fans and Zamboni dreamers, his passion for the game shining through.
After a warmup, before the resurfacing, he grabbed a stray puck.
“You guys want a puck?” he asked a brother-sister pair with a grin, handing it over to the excited kids.