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Stone-cold Wonderful
Mark Bechtel
March 25, 2002
For Donnie MacMillan, there is nothing finer than to be Carolina's king of ice
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March 25, 2002

Stone-cold Wonderful

For Donnie MacMillan, there is nothing finer than to be Carolina's king of ice

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In the north lot at the Entertainment and Sports Arena (ESA) in Raleigh, where the Carolina Hurricanes park their cars and the telecasters park their satellite trucks, sits a 33-foot motor home wedged alongside a fence. It's from whence the iceman cometh.

Every morning during the NHL season 43-year-old Donnie MacMillan, the ESA building superintendent, leaves his RV and makes the short walk across the parking lot to the arena. Among other things, it's MacMillan's job to oversee the building's 200-by-85-foot ice surface, which includes resurfacing it before games and between periods with a Zamboni. (Well, it's not actually a Zamboni. The ESA's resurfacing machines were manufactured by a company named Olympia, but MacMillan and everybody else who works in the arena calls them Zambonis.)

MacMillan usually wears what he calls crazy pants, baggy cousins of sweatpants with loud designs, of which he owns 30 pairs. The combined effect of his fun-loving demeanor and his relaxed wardrobe makes him seem laid-back, but when it comes to solid-state H[2]0, MacMillan is all business. As a defenseman at West Haven ( Conn.) High he'd sometimes play on a Friday night at the New Haven Coliseum and be back the next day to help building supervisor Pete Vitalli tend to the ice.

Vitalli was MacMillan's mentor, the man responsible for putting him behind the wheel of a Zamboni for the first time, at 14. "I was with Pete all the time," says MacMillan. "One day he jumped off and said, 'Here, go.' That had always been my dream. Everyone wants to be the Zamboni driver."

MacMillan remained a rink rat, driving the Zamboni for the New Haven Knight-hawks of the American Hockey League before getting a similar job with the Hartford Whalers, in 1993. When the Whalers moved to North Carolina four years later, MacMillan went along for the ride. "It happened so quickly," says MacMillan of his decision to move. "The team's brass said that if I wanted to stay at the arena, I could, and I've loved RVs all my life, so I got a nice little RV."

MacMillan wants it known that there's more to making good ice than getting water really cold, and when he begins reciting the variables, it's easy to believe him. The water he uses, for instance, must be a perfectly proportioned blend of deionized and municipal. He also must factor in the size of the crowd expected for the next game (the more people, the warmer the building gets) as well as the outside temperature. He always gets an early start, checking the weather well in advance and then making changes in the arena temperature. "Three o'clock in the morning on a game day is the most important time," he says. "If you're ready then, it's easy."

MacMillan has achieved about as much celebrity as a Zamboni driver can. He has appeared in two ESPN commercials promoting the NHL playoffs, and other rinkmasters around the league frequently ask him for advice. When the website www.howstuffworks.com wanted to know how to operate an ice rink, the editors asked MacMillan to serve as their expert.

Given his r�sum�, MacMillan could probably write his own ticket with Sno-Cone, but he's in no hurry to leave his position with the Hurricanes, if for no other reason than he can't wear crazy pants at a desk job. "As far as I'm concerned, this is what I want to do," he says. "I'm not going to sit upstairs and do suit-and-tie work. I love my job."

Before a Hurricanes game earlier this season, as he resurfaced the ice with a passenger belted into the jump seat, MacMillan paid little attention to his visitor or to the fans in the stands who constantly waved at him. Instead he kept an eye on the driver of ESA's second resurfacing machine (the NHL requires teams to employ two machines between periods), who he thought wasn't shaving enough ice off the surface. "I'm usually watching the other guy more than what I'm doing," MacMillan says.

He gave the other driver a few hand signals, telling him to drop his blade a bit, and then finally went over the area in question himself. Satisfied that the ice was right, MacMillan drove off into the bowels of the arena, saying, "That's why I like to be the first one on and the last one off."

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