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.