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They’re smooth on ice

Zamboni drivers want clean sweep

Between periods, each Zamboni puts 35 gallons of water on the Garden ice, which receives greater scrutiny in the Final. Between periods, each Zamboni puts 35 gallons of water on the Garden ice, which receives greater scrutiny in the Final. (File/John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Nicole Auerbach
Globe Correspondent / June 14, 2011

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The team enjoying home-ice advantage won each of the first five games of the Stanley Cup Final.

With the series on the line for the Bruins in Game 6 last night, it only made sense that the men in charge of maintaining that surface felt they were under the spotlight.

The ice can’t be too soft. Can’t be too choppy. Or too wet.

Paul Lawrence is one of the Bruins’ two full-time Zamboni drivers. He started working at the Garden in 1992 as a member of the “bull gang,’’ the name for the legendary crew that turns the Garden from hardwood to ice and vice versa. In 1995, an opportunity arose.

“There was an opening for the ice crew,’’ said Lawrence, 49. “There were like 13 people who went for the job. They narrowed it down to three, and they took us over to [a] rink in the North End, and out of the three people, they picked me.’’

The tryouts weren’t easy. The finalists drove Zambonis for two weeks while constantly being judged on their driving — from the way they were scraping the ice to the amount of water they were putting down.

Now, in his 16th season as a Zamboni driver and many more as a Bruins fan, Lawrence has gotten a chance to not only watch his favorite team compete in its first Cup Final since 1990, he’s also been a part of it.

Lawrence and the rest of the maintenance crew keep the ice at 19 degrees Fahrenheit at the start of every game. In between periods, each Zamboni puts down about 35 gallons of water, according to Lawrence.

For vehicles that top out at 9 miles per hour, Zambonis get a lot of attention — Sarah Palin, likely joking, once told People magazine she wanted to name a child Zamboni. Drivers such as Lawrence often get asked if riding around on the ice in between periods is as fun as it looks.

“Yeah, it is,’’ he said, smiling. “But there’s also a lot of pressure on you.’’

During the Cup Final, there’s even more.

Both teams, the game officials, and the NHL have been scrutinizing and grading the Zamboni drivers and the ice. Plus, the maintenance crews need to be especially careful about maintaining the ice temperature as June brings warmer weather.

Lawrence has 16 years’ worth of stories about Zamboni driving, but one sticks out most.

“I had somebody throw a slice of pizza at me once,’’ he said, laughing. “It just missed me and went right over my shoulder.’’

These Zambonis hold more than just funny stories, though. They house memories of star players, nail-biting finishes, and never-forgotten employees.

A small gold plaque is nailed to the bumper of one of the Garden’s Zambonis. It is dedicated to the memory of James W. Arsenault, a former driver. The plaque includes the dates of his birth and death as well as two quotes: “Bring it in Fleet,’’ and “Beautiful.’’

“He was close with everybody, and he went through a tough thing with the cancer,’’ said Paul Chambers, another Garden employee who worked with Arsenault. “He passed on, so we put it on there for him.’’

Few Bruins fans probably knew or could have recognized Arsenault if they saw him on the street, but now his plaque has become a part of the rink’s tradition. These Zambonis are more than just ice-surfacing machines; they allow the spirit of the Garden and its inhabitants to live on.

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