For most of us, ice is an unwanted yet unavoidable part of winter life in Wisconsin. It clogs our gutters, coats our roads and sidewalks leaving them treacherous and often un-navigable and all in all, makes the winter months a royal pain.
For people like Jason Piche, though, ice is a constant part of his life. Day in and day out, no matter the day or the season, he's around ice.
The 30-year-old Vermont native is one of a handful of individuals charged with grooming and maintaining the three ice surfaces at the Pettit National Ice Center in West Allis.
A normal shift begins between 2 and 4 p.m., depending on the day of the week and schedule of events. Again, depending on the schedule, Piche leaves anywhere between 10 p.m. and midnight -- sometimes, later when there are bigger events.
After going over the day's schedule, Piche usually sets out to do some maintence chores, making sure everything on the Zamboni is up to snuff. After that, it's time to make his first ice of the day, in advance of the afternoon's open speedskating session.
"Weekdays are pretty light; some hockey and figure skating practices," Piche says. "There's no games, so the timing isn't as crucial. The weekend schedule takes up the entire page."
Piche takes great pride in "good ice." The Pettit Center ice has been well-regarded, especially for speedskaters. A lot of that, Piche says, is because of the equipment and the people operating it.
"You have to have the proper equipment," he says, "You can only do as good as the machines. If a driver doesn't know how to properly use the machine, that has an effect, too, but if the parts on the machine aren't working right ... there's problems."
Operating a Zamboni isn't difficult ("you don't need a degree," admits Piche) but it does require some experience and knowledge to do so properly with good results.
"It takes time learning how deep to cut, how much water to put it," Piche says. "You don't need a drivers' license to do it, but it's not something just can just come off the street, learn and do properly in a couple of weeks."
Zamboni, like Kleenex and Q-Tips, is actually a brand name. The Zamboni Company, founded by Frank Zamboni, is the best-known manufacturer of ice resurfacers, not the only one. Canada's Resurface Corporation's Olympia resurfacer is a major competitor to Zamboni and gained some unwanted notoriety during the Olympics when two of the company's machines broke down at the Richmond Olympic Oval and a Zamboni had to be trucked in from nearby Calgary.
Nonetheless, both machines operate under the same basic principle: a giant blade scrapes off the top surface of the ice. A large auger, parallel to the ice surface, collects the snow, which then is moved up to a holding tank. The tank, once the surface is done, is then emptied into a wastewater pit.
At the same time all this is going on (save for the emptying of the tank), jets of hot water are sprayed onto the ice surface, filling in holes, gashes and other creases and creating a slick, new surface for the figure skaters, speed skaters, hockey players and general public to slice.
The Pettit has two Zambonis, one used on the two Olympic-sized ice rinks and another for handling the 400-meter speedskating oval. Resurfacing a rink takes between 10-12 minutes and is done frequently through out the day, usually after every ice session.
The oval, though, takes much longer. Piche usually needs about five or six laps, to get the ice resurfaced, which takes about 25 to 30 minutes to accomplish. The oval, too, is resurfaced several times a day and on weekends, during public skating sessions and the ice takes a beating from the hundreds of blades that take laps.
The trips around the oval, especially late at night once the building has closed for the day, can be mundane and boring at times, so Piche relies heavily on his iPod.
"After a while, even the music becomes boring," he says. "I've started listening to more podcasts ... it's something different."
Still, though, Piche loves what he does. During public skating sessions, kids will often line the side of the oval watching Piche take his laps. He'll get close enough for them to slap his hand, wave and shout out their admiration for his job.
"It's pretty cool," Piche admits. "To a lot of them, I have the greatest job in the world."
There is a little bit of "hurry up and wait" involved with the job, especially on weeknights. Often times, Piche will lace up his skates and take a few laps around the oval.
"I get to be a kind of rink guard at times, which is pretty cool," Piche says.
But when it's busy, it's really busy. Often, he'll have only a short window to resurface both rinks and Piche has it down to a science -- "almost to the minute," he says.
On weekends, he's hopped behind the counter and helped with skate rental and during big events -- like last year's U.S. Speedskating Trials -- he helped out with a multitude of tasks.
His main focus, though, is on the ice.
Piche got his start on the ice while working at the University of Vermont. Working with the arena crew, he was eventually trained on the Zamboni and has been doing it ever since. He came to Milwaukee in 2008, starting at the Bradley Center and joined the Pettit Center staff late last year.
He likes the job -- a lot. He's been able to get to know the regulars and in a small way, plays a role in the success of local skaters -- like gold medalist Shani Davis, who trains at the Pettit -- and has gone onto Olympic glory.
It kind of makes those late-night, solitary rides around the oval all the more worth it.
"It's easy to do when you love something and you take pride in it," Piche says.