When the Georgia club hockey team began playing its games inside The Classic Center in 2014, more than a community craze for the team was born.
Steve Eirish, the Zamboni driver for Georgia’s home matches, began making his regular appearances on the ice between periods and quickly became part of the attraction.
[With Eirish] there’s a little extra than just going to watch a hockey game,” Ice Dawgs fan Evan Page said. “Sometimes you can get a little absent-minded, but then he comes back. You realize you’re not going to get this anywhere but an Ice Dawgs game.”
Fans will have their final two chances of the season to catch Eirish when Georgia plays Tennessee on Jan. 31 and Auburn on Feb. 1.
Eirish has worked at The Classic Center for 12 years. When he started, he worked five to six hours a night on the setup crew and eventually made his way into the engineering department. When The Classic Center bought the ice rink –– now known as Akins Ford Arena –– a temporary Zamboni driver was in place, so Eirish initially just helped put the ice rink together and maintain it.
But The Classic Center needed a permanent Zamboni driver, so they turned to Eirish.
“He was a forklift driver for a really long time and he was good at it,” said Kurt Kosloske, director of engineering and IT. “We let everybody try [to drive] that was in our department. Certain people stood out, but Steve became our best driver.”
But what is a Zamboni? And where does a name like that come from?
The Zamboni's origin dates back to the summer of 1949 after Frank Zamboni began looking for ways to more efficiently maintain the ice surface at his Iceland Skating Rink in Paramount, California.
To resurface an ice rink before then, a scraper attached to the back of a tractor would make its way around the ice rink, followed by workers scooping the shavings with a shovel, then spraying and squeegeeing the surface. The process would take more than an hour each time and required a crew of three to five people.
After seven years of trial and error, he engineered a machine to resurface the ice, and the Zamboni was assembled.
Eirish was introduced by name while coming onto the rink, and the fan-to-Zamboni driver connection was cemented.
“[Everyone] just started to think about him as a part of the game,” Page said. “When he came [onto the ice] everyone just starts chanting ‘Steve! Steve! Steve!’”
During some Georgia hockey games, fans in different seating sections will compete to have the loudest cheers as he drives by.
And when simply reacting to the crowd isn’t enough, Eirish brings a rally towel with him onto the ice. It’s not necessarily his job to entertain fans in the crowd, but Eirish is a bit of an opportunist, so he does it anyway.
Eirish loves the attention that driving the Zamboni brings and that he’s one of few people that drive one as part of their job. He goes against the norm, not only because of his job, but also because of how he does it.
“Some people always kind of make a joke about Zamboni drivers because they’re usually maintenance guys [who] are just kind of grouchy,” said Lindsey Smith, UGA hockey multimedia manager. “But [Steve] is really welcoming. He’s super enthusiastic and a people person.”
In his debut driving the Zamboni, Eirish’s only concern was doing it correctly. But as he became more comfortable in his new role, his focus changed to keeping the crowd’s energy high after each period.
“He’s always smiling and having a great time,” Smith said. “He’s very humbled by the attention that he gets and I think it’s awesome.”
Eirish has no plans to stop resurfacing the ice when the Ice Dawgs eventually move into their new 5,500-seat Classic Center arena.
“I enjoy everything that I do [at The Classic Center],” Eirish said. “I can see myself doing this for a while. It’s cool to me. … There aren’t many Zamboni [drivers].”