This man truly loves his job as Rockefeller Center’s Zamboni guy



Ever met someone who absolutely loves his job and never wants to quit?
One such person is Nelson Corporan. The 51-year-old is never on thin ice when he’s cruising along on his custom-made cherry-red ice resurfacer at the Rink at Rockefeller Center. (While universally called a Zamboni, in actuality, his machine is made by Sport Ice.)
Employed by Patina Restaurant Group for the past 24 years, Corporan is responsible for making sure the ice at the nearly 100-year-old rink, which opens for the season Oct. 8, is smooth and imperfection-free for the thousands of tourists and New Yorkers who come to skate there.
During the summer, Corporan has multiple roles at the Summer Garden & Bar restaurant, but it’s the winter he looks forward to, when he can bust out the Zamboni.
“Every year, I get so excited,” he says.
Corporan, who lives in Washington Heights and hails from the Dominican Republic, found the job through his father, who also worked at Rockefeller Center. As an 18-year-old who spoke extremely limited English, Corporan started out as an outdoor porter, cleaning up, sweeping, shoveling snow and performing general maintenance, but he set his sights higher.
“I started learning how to skate,” he says. “Then, I tried to learn everything.”
Five years later, he became the rink’s Zamboni guy. Aside from clearing the ice, Corporan also sharpens skate blades, monitors the checkroom and serves as a rink guard when staff is short-handed, spotting imperfections and fixing them immediately.
Corporan takes the Zamboni onto the ice between each skating session. He scrapes up the loose ice (“snow”), sprays a layer of water to create new ice and then smooths everything out, all within 30 minutes.
His job is made more challenging by being outdoors in the constantly changing weather conditions, and breakdowns can (and do) occur. The most recent glitch occurred during last holiday season’s cold snap. Due to the high traffic at the rink, the ice had taken quite a beating, and the surface was littered with shavings. As a result of the buildup, Corporan and his Zamboni got stuck. He couldn’t move forward or backward, while the Zamboni started to smoke and overheat.
“I can resolve most problems, so I knew right away what I had to do,” Corporan says. “There was too much snow on the blade. So I put the blade a little bit up, and then I kept going.”
Corporan’s job might seem unusual, but there is a need for Zamboni drivers throughout the US. According to Jeff Theiler, chief operating officer of the United States Ice Rink Association, there are at least 1,545 ice rinks in the US, and each one has at least two ice resurfacers.
“Bigger rinks with two-plus ice sheets would have multiple [drivers],” he says. “A couple of rinks in the country have eight or more.”
The approximately 5,000 drivers earn at least minimum wage, but numerous factors influence salaries, from location and experience to whether they have taken courses and hold certifications, such as that of certified ice technician. That requires three technical courses and a total of 28 hours of classroom and hands-on classes followed by an exam. Successful candidates are also recertified every five years. (More information can be found at USIceRinks.com.)
Often, “people start off as rink rats — they play hockey or figure skate,” says Theiler. “The career path is commensurate with experience, and is very much learn-on-the-job. Ice resurfacers are expected to have a keen eye for detail, be focused and have a valid driver’s license.”
Theiler’s words of advice for aspiring Zamboni drivers: “Decide to make it a career, then work your way up to management. Take pride in what you do.”
As Corporan can attest, there is often more to the job than just driving the resurfacers. When not smoothing out the ice, Corporan skates around keeping his eagle eye on the rink’s guests — in fact, he’s known as Superman to his colleagues for his uncanny ability to sense an ice-skating guest in peril.
“He can spot a child who’s about to fall,” says Tanja Yokum, director of public relations and marketing for Patina Restaurant Group. “He’ll get to them in a second, and pick them up as they’re falling. He’ll see some people who are about to go down, and he’s at their side.”
Olympic skaters may also visit the rink in the wee hours of the morning. Frequently, they want to practice their routines, and Corporan helps set up the music.
Corporan has no plans to move on. “We never know what will happen in the future, but right now, this is my priority,” he says.