Between charity-auction winners and sponsors' clients, the second
seat on Al Sobotka's Zamboni is usually occupied when he's
grooming the ice between periods of Detroit Red Wings games at
Joe Louis Arena. Passengers get a leisurely trip--always
clockwise around the boards, then up center ice--but there's no
guided tour to speak of. "I try to chat with them, but I have to
pay attention to what I'm doing," says Sobotka, 50. "The
pressure's on. I'm not there to look good."
Sobotka learned how to handle a Zamboni from longtime driver
Jimmy Hook at the Red Wings' previous home, Olympia Stadium, in
1974. He was limited to postgame resurfacings and to practicing
until he mastered the intricacies of the machine, but by the end
of the 1974-75 season Sobotka was a full-time driver. He can't
remember the last time he missed a game.
Over the years he's handled the complaints of Red Wings greats
from Marcel Dionne to Brett Hull, groomed the surface for three
Stanley Cup champs and cleared the ice of thousands of octopi
hurled from the stands. "I've had other people drive for me,"
Sobotka says, "but I got rid of them because I didn't like the
way they did it."
He resurfaces the ice in about 10 minutes, but Sobotka is more
concerned with producing a clean sheet than with speed. "Some
guys just look straight ahead when they drive," he says. "But you
have to look around and check out the whole surface. Being
observant is big, and when you see a rut that you missed, you
have to go back. I'm never embarrassed to go back."
Sobotka's meticulous work is appreciated by the team, but he may
be most beloved for the monthly barbecues he's had for the
players and staff since the mid-1980s. In recent years the Red
Wings have demanded that he fire up the grill before every
playoff round to bring them good luck. Behind the fire and on the
ice, they count on Al Sobotka.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO (TOP) SCRAPING BY Sobotka's been riding the Red Wings' rink for nearly30 years, preparing ice and cleaning up octopuses.